What’s actually happening in your company
Running a company is tough. You need to monitor what goes on all through the company, use relevant information, and then make good decisions how best to use the company’s resources of people, equipment and time.
I’m in the same shoes, running a software company. I need to be fully informed about my staff and projects in constant flux. Moreover, the software we produce is devoted to enabling other companies to have appropriate and correct information, organised, integrated, prioritised, for optimal decision-making and for shaping guidance to their staff wherever possible.
Changed perspective on software
After countless projects we have made a subtle but astounding discovery. In most cases, software was not just supporting the work of people but in many ways it was complementing or even replacing staff. In other words, software is part of the staff.
This ushered in a new mindset, while also partly explaining some of the typical tension that’s common with corporate software installations.
“Humanizing” software meant it suddenly became much easier to understand what was happening in a project. It doesn’t really matter whether you use only spreadsheets, or islands of distinct systems, or already have an integrated ERP system, if you think of software as part of the workforce, it gives a different perspective.
After all, software does work and interact with colleagues just like humans. It probably communicates with and connects more people than any other entity in the company.
Of course humans have great skills beyond those of mere software, but software also has its special merits. Good software is an ultra-reliable, tireless colleague. Together, humans and well-fitting software are a powerful combination.
Software in middle management roles
Taking that thought one step further, we have found that software is not just a “slave” at the bottom of the ladder. Often it fills in middle management roles and can be the right-hand assistant for leaders.
Actually, a substantial part of controlling and monitoring the company could fall directly on a software system’s shoulders.
Several good questions arise from this. What kind of tasks would we set for an imaginary staff member in that position? How could that staff member fit into the surrounding culture of the company? What kind of delegation or autonomous style would we like to see?
The first software-human partnership question arises from the distinction of data and information. Software can gather data from sensors, from machinery, and from humans through forms, mouse actions or even verbal instructions. All this is then remembered for us for a very long time.
However, data alone is just facts and figures, without context. For data to be significant and useful it needs to be interpreted, organised, structured and presented. Data can then transform into information, which is grist to the mill of decision-making.
Information's purpose and data collection are two essentials to know about
Humans are MUCH more likely to make good decisions with the right information available to them.
A good way to build the path between “dry” data and well-informed decision-making is to start working on the two end-points separately.
One aspect is having a vision of what we want to use information for.
The other is knowing what data can realistically be gathered.
Having established these essentials, we can then start designing the “mid-section” for the software, how it will transform and provide actionable information derived from the data.
How much information?
Once a company has a good understanding of the information at its disposal it can start planning how it is going to use it. An important rule of thumb is that it’s easier and more efficient for us humans to do our work when we are not overwhelmed with information.
The software system should provide what is relevant for each job and work task. This is the input to produce required results in chains of operations.
The purer, the more relevant that input is, the less that people need to exert themselves on selecting and cleansing it.
However, one should not aim at perfect input purity as that would endanger the flexibility of a company, (as explained later).
The second set of questions arises from how the chain of operations is put together. A big part of the workflow is built into the software.
Who gets to do what, at what point? When do staff get notified and how? What is the balance between automatic alerts and expected diligence on the employees’ part?
Starting with notifications, at first it seems a wonderful idea to have software alerting us whenever we have something to do.
...But it has two major faults.
One, constant alerts lose their impact on humans after a while, because people quickly adapt to shut them out.
Sadly, that means ignoring even the crucial ones. So alerts must be limited to rare occasions.
Two, over-controlled operations endanger the responsiveness of a company.
Business leaders rightly want appropriate discipline and streamlined workflow in their companies, but the more detailed and controlling a system is, the more one has to think of every possible outcome.
Because life can change swiftly, forced over-rigidity can become an enemy only too quickly.
Finding the right balance is crucial.
We do want the efficiency induced by inbuilt best practices, but we want to keep the all-important flexibility and adaptability modern businesses depend upon.
This balance should be supported by software. The system’s role is in streamlining and controlling the company in an orderly fashion, and humans then filling in the gaps with the right amount of autonomy and responsibility given to them.
To summarize this, workflows have to break down operations into manageable tasks.
Information must be well-selected and prioritised for particular jobs, to enable good decisions and optimal use of the company’s resources.
The inputs and outputs should all form an elegant flow, with every stage adding value.
Spreading the workload between software and humans will change job descriptions and responsibilities.
Approvals and data-checking can partly be done by the system, and that shifts the focus of human colleagues as well.
This allows for employees in the affected jobs to concentrate on higher tasks, or to have time available for better fully-informed decisions.
Software can be like a perfect diplomat - monitoring unobtrusively
Once the desired workflow and dataflow structure are in place, good software is also in the perfect position to monitor relentlessly. It can be taught to alert top management for events or to watch out for particular circumstances.
Like having a perfect diplomatic overseer, it can ease the minds of management who are responsible to act. You can know what’s happening inside your company 24/7. You don’t have to wait until you can reach particular individuals, possibly busy on other tasks.
Software can also give objective feedback, guiding people to focus on what’s important for the company.
Sharing with staff the metrics watched by management, and giving employees some autonomy and responsibility to improve them, usually have a very positive effect.
It is difficult to provide helpful criticism and guidance at the same time, but when the software takes on the role to provide feedback, management can take a more effective coaching position.
Of course, achieving the ideal picture of perfect and productive harmony between our human and software staff is far from trivial. Human or software, all have to be trained, orchestrated and trained again many times before we can look at our creation and be pleased with what we see! And as life or our vision changes, we have to come back and do it again from time to time.