In 1995 I worked as a retail clerk at the Tower Records Classical Annex on Sunset Boulevard. Despite all the video cameras and the alert loss prevention staff (most of who were built like bouncers), the store didn’t trust us to change a mispriced item, let alone handle a refund or exchange. If I accidentally rang up a three-disc opera at the list price (which happened frequently —sales prices often weren’t inputted into the computer), I would have to call up one of the roaming supervisors, a process that could take 10 minutes or more when the store was busy.
Of course, I wished I had the capability to change the price myself, if only to escape that buyer’s vitriol (Tower Classical customers were an entitled lot). But a system designed to prevent minimum-wage employees from stealing meant that I couldn’t take care of a simple, common process. No doubt this stupidity played at least a small role in sending potential customers to the Internet, leading to the chain’s demise 10 years later.
I bring up this story to point out that any business process, whether analog or digital, can leave employees hamstrung if the underlying system is faulty. And that’s why I had trouble with Mary Shacklett’s recent post for TechRepublic, titled The dark side of business process automation: Lack of innovation and lethargic employees.
On the surface her post makes sense. After pointing out several examples of ways BPA (Business Process Automation) has “reduce[d] the incidence of human error and…promotes consistency across the organization,” she worries that:
The danger of going too far with BPA is in its potential to condition employees into mentally lethargic behavior. Then, when a business exception comes around, or a smart analytics report delivers data that fails to synchronize with what is really happening, there is no one there to think through the situation on his own.
I have a couple of problems with this analysis. First off, most complex BPA solutions offer some level technical support as part of the cost. Purchasers of the solution will either buy that additional support, unless they have the qualified IT professionals or an MSP to troubleshoot it. “Innovation” may be a nice skill for the average cashier to have, but that skill tends raise the wage of such an employee—or cause that employee to seek out different employment.
Moreover, Shacklett presumes too much automation causes “mentally lethargic” employees. She even uses retail to prove her point:
If the input to the system of one item code is missed, an employee at the checkout can’t figure out how to manually key in a price.
Shacklett mistakes correlation for causality here. As I said already, I definitely would have keyed in a different price if Tower Records had given me the agency to do so. In other words, this favoring of process over human resources doesn’t create lazy or lethargic employees. It creates helpless ones. And it shows that any good BPA solution needs exception handling baked in, so that employees have the leeway to make decisions when things don’t run as planned.
In my next post, I analyze why BPA must support people and not the other way around. In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter!
Photo credit: Hastingsgraham via Flickr