Man versus machine

“As I travel around the world, witnessing the ways in which technology is changing our lives, I am increasingly seeing a de-humanising of business.

“We can all understand the need to manage costs and drive waste out of our organisations, but I suggest that the very things we are doing to save money are actually eliminating the opportunities to delight customers and create emotional connections with them. From self-check-in counters at airports to self-scan checkouts at supermarkets, wherever we look we are spending more time interfacing with machines and less time interacting with people.

“I recently ran a workshop on ‘The People Side of Change’ at which the attendees were a mix of business and process analysts, change professionals and managers. In every case, they told me that the skills they were learning would help them to better elicit requirements, sell projects and facilitate workshops. Many suggested that this was the first time that they had really understood how people actually communicate and the emotions attached to any forms of communication.

“Yet they admitted that their companies were increasingly relying on emails, conference calls and other non-personal communications. They suggested that this was the reason that many business process management or change projects are failing to deliver the full benefit.

“Ignoring the people perspective can lead us to overlook some of the simple answers that are staring us in the face, and to seek technological solutions when human solutions can actually serve us better. Two examples spring to mind to illustrate this point.

“The first is the oft-quoted example of General Electric. Many of those who wish to emulate GE’s successes in the process arena look towards management frameworks such as Six Sigma. Yet as former GE executive Dick Hilbert points out, GE saved many millions of dollars with its ‘Work-Out’ programme – whereby cross-functional teams of employees come together to drive business improvement – long before they considered structured approaches to process. Hilbert argues that if GE had not developed Work-Out before looking at Six Sigma and then automation, they would in fact have been building waste into the systems instead of out of it.

“My second example is from the insurance industry. OUTsurance is a leading motor insurance company in South Africa. As anyone who has driven around Johannesburg will tell you, peak-time traffic is a nightmare.

“OUTsurance employs people to help manage traffic flows at busy junctions. They realised that when traffic is flowing there are fewer accidents. The best way to reduce the cost of the claims-handling process is to reduce the number and cost of claims they need to handle. For me, this is a good example of a human solution to the problem, and one that traditional technological analysis techniques will always miss. Plus, they are delighting their customers in a way that increases their chances of retaining them.

“Contrast these examples with those who are dehumanising their business processes. Which type of organisation are people going to prefer to work for or do business with?”

Mark McGregor is an author and process change coach. For more information, visit

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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