Automation and the implications of driving to a flat organization

Profile picture for user cebess By Charlie Bess August 4, 2015
Charlie Bess explains how automation could result in a bumpy ride. Let's not forget the fundamentals along the way.

One shift enabled by the abundance of computing is significantly greater automation of knowledge work. This will affect many roles, especially middle management. Since the role of middle management involves accessing data, assessing it and taking action in a standard way, these functions are ripe for automation. The number of people performing these tasks will reduce significantly, in the near future. Even without an active decision to be more agile and flat, the use of automation will crush organizational hierarchies and cause significant shifts in behavior.

I saw an article a while back about how Technology will make businesses more 'human'. It describes a perspective on how organizations can use technology to generate buy-in to corporate objectives. A side effect will force organizations to become more flat, with personnel enabled to take action. A goal of the technology deployment is to free up personnel to focus on delivery, leadership and corporate goals where their creativity is needed, rather than spending their time performing or overseeing well-understood operational drudgery.

As an organization flattens, the existing model of the way things work will change as a wider cross-section (but fewer people) are involved in decisions. On the positive side, this will drive out latency, but the decisions that will need to be made will demand more creativity and likely be of greater importance. This increased expectation will make some uneasy.

Image credit - Automation Engineers

For many organizations today, the upper levels of the hierarchy are worried about the financials and other numbers while the lower levels do the tasks that generate value, for example manufacturing:

Historically, the people at the top were viewed as out-of-touch and slow to address the needs of the people at the bottom. While at the same time, those at the top viewed those at the bottom as slow to execute those directions that seem so simple. This is a mismatch of context and a luxury business can no longer afford. This is one reason there is such a focus on analytics today, to enable more informed and rapid decision making at every level, not just the top.

The fundamentals of business are still the same. Businesses still need to:

  • Create quality products – Quality is defined by customers by the way. Understanding those needs and addressing them is at least as important as driving defects out of the production process.
  • Reduce waste – Some resources will always be constrained (expensive), optimizing that consumption and reducing non-value added by-products remains a consistent need for improvement. Optimizing the value from what’s scarce by effectively consuming abundance may actually increase in importance, since the Internet of Things and analytics are directly applicable.
  • Improve over time – The assessment of quality and the efficiency of production change over time. The S curve or learning curve is a well-known concept describing how when new techniques are applied there is significant learning that takes place that eventually reaches a limit. Innovative ideas need to be developed and optimized continuously, for a company to consistently grow and remain competitive.
  • Respond quickly – Those businesses that can respond quickly to events and trends will have a significant advantage over their lumbering competitors.
  • Respect people – In a flattened organization the importance of the people cannot be overlooked. There will not be as many of them, so they will likely have greater depth and breadth of impact. Any loss of or inattention by this scarce resource will be acutely felt. I believe that attention engineering will be one of the key business process optimization skills of the remainder of this decade.

As businesses apply automation and adjust their organizational behavior, assessing the effect of the change on these business fundamentals needs to be a baked into the thought process. Both quantitative and qualitative approaches that assess the leading and lagging indicators of effectiveness are needed. Techniques like gamification will be used to adjust behavior and increase visibility and transparency.

Remember that advanced computing techniques and automation can allow you to do stupid things faster as well as those results you originally intended. As the organization flattens, more of the team will need to feel compelled to understand, monitor and act.