John C. Thomas, Alison Lee, and Catalina Danis

jcthomas, alee,

In complex business processes, it is often the case that many people and or computer programs in sequence are required to perform the complete process. Designers of business processes try to anticipate the information necessary to flow along these sequences in order to make sure the entire process works consistently. However, in reality, it often occurs that unanticipated additional coordination is required among the sequential components in a complex process. Therefore, across each transition, an additional facility should exist for conversation; that is, the transfer of unanticipated but vital coordinating information.

One would like to have processes that are efficient and effective and lead to customer satisfaction even if the assumptions about the needs for information interchange among subprocesses in a more complex process turn out to be insufficient in scope.

Businesses today are always striving to become more efficient. Part of the solution offered for this striving toward greater efficiency is to automate some of the steps in a more complex overall processes. When a human being is required to perform some steps in the process, most organizations choose to specialize function; that is, train one group of people to perform one function and then “hand off” the process to another group of people that has been trained to perform another function and so on. In fact, the level of integration that organizations strive for now commonly extends across formal corporate boundaries so that various elements in a supply chain attempt to coordinate their efforts. There is no doubt that such larger scale integration can result in greater efficiency.

Systems are seldom designed, however, with a complete understanding of every possible contingency that can arise. Indeed, that is probably impossible in principle. What often happens is that systems are designed under a set of assumptions that are often, but not always true. When the assumptions break down, it is important for people on both sides of a functional boundary to be able to have a cooperative conversation in order to solve the problem left by the gap between the actual reality of a situation and the model implied by the system design. Luckily, given the right atmosphere, culture, and incentive structure, people can generally solve such problems. It helps greatly if they have the time and the appropriate space (preferably real, but at least virtual) to keep informal communication paths open through conversation. In this way, when a problem arises, they are much more likely to “bridge the gap” constructively rather than point fingers.

Historically, many organizations have recognized the need for such informal conversational ties and have provided both special places (Officer’s Club; Traditional Pub; Company Cafeterias) and events (Company Picnics; Religious Retreats; Holiday Parties; Clubs) to facilitate such interchanges. As organizations attempt integration across ever wider scales however, providing appropriate venues becomes increasingly challenging. In some cases, two related or sequential functions will report to a single manager. In such cases, the manager may serve part of the communication bridging function. Clearly, however, in complex, multi-step processes, formal management methods alone will be insufficient for coordination across all the boundaries.

When links in a processing chain do not converse, inefficiency and poor customer service result. For example, in a telecommunications company, customer service reps gave out credit card numbers to business customers. However, they had to get these numbers from the accounting department. The customer service reps were only allowed to make outbound calls between 12 and 1. The accounting department generally had lunch between 12 and 1. As a result, it was often many days before customers were able to begin using their business accounts. The accounting department and the customer service reps also disliked each other , had no informal contact, and when other coordination problems arose, generally blamed each other.

Modern business processes are often too complex to be understood in detail by any single person.
Performance on any task is generally a logarithmic function of time on task.
A person’s time is limited.
Complex systems are typically designed and built by decomposition.
Systems to automate, semi-automate, or coordinate are generally designed by people who are not the people who actually do the tasks.
Designs can never anticipate all contingencies.
Human beings can negotiate to solve novel coordination problems via conversation.
People find conversation in the service of finding and solving problems rewarding.
People are subject to forming “in-groups” and “out-groups.”
If “in-groups” and “out-groups” are formed, rather than negotiating a solution to a problem that is globally optimal, each group will try to “win” by forcing the solution that is optimal for their subfunction.

At a minimum, Time, Space, and Means as well as Motivation must be provided for employees who form a bridge from one step in a process to the next to carry on continuing informal conversation. Employees must have time to carry on such conversations. A space must be provided in which such conversations can take place. If a physical space convenient to both parties is not feasible, some means of support for informal distant collaboration and conversation is necessary. Payoffs must accrue to the parties across a bridge jointly for solving problems, not for proving that the other party is to blame.

At IBM Research, I used to play a lot of tennis with other IBMers including an inter-company league. In the course of playing tennis, I met someone in the corporate tax department. I also used a system called ITIRC which returned the abstracts of scientific and technical articles that were predicted to be interesting to me based on a key-word in context search. Such systems are not terribly accurate and I got many false positives. One in particular had nothing whatever to do with my interests; it was about a new federal program that allowed highly profitable companies to trade tax credits with companies that were losing money. Instead of throwing this in the trash, because I had had conversations with Frank, I forwarded the abstract to him who looked into this program and saved a lot of money for IBM. This case illustrates that ideally even people with no obvious process connection should be able to converse informally.

In planning the first Universal Usability Conference (ACM SIGCHI), it was necessary to delegate various functions to various parties. While, we attempted to plan ahead of time by standard tools such as budgets and project timelines, there were numerous unanticipated problems that needed to be solved. A weekly conference call among all the functional heads allowed us to identify and solve such problems effectively and efficiently.

In WorldJam (an on-line 3 day company-wide electronic meeting in which all IBMers were invited to participate; generate ideas and comment on them in ten topics), moderators and facilitators used Babble (an electronic blended synchronous/asynchonous chat) and Sametime (a synchronous chat system) as backchannels to collectively solve problems, as well as to coordinate information among the ten topics.

In Hanna Pavillion, a children’s psychiatric hospital in Cleveland, each change of shift is marked by a short joint staff meeting in which any particularly novel observations or issues are discussed so that a continuity of knowledge persists across the shift boundaries (this is common in most medical settings, in fact). In addition, at least some people work double shifts or rotating shifts and get to know people from various shifts. There are ample opportunties for informal conversation during the course of the day as well as in various special outings. On these occassions, staff members can insure coordination of treatment for a specific child across the boundaries of the various nurses, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, and child care workers who interact with each child.

Resulting Context:
In the ideal case, trust and even friendships can develop among people working on related processes even though they belong to different functions and report to different managers. Unanticiapted problems can be identified, solutions designed and implemented in a cooperative spirit. As a result, the workforce is more productive and more satisfied leading to lower turnover, absenteeism, and sabatoge. Further, the customers ultimately benefit from improved service and feel as though they are dealing with an integrated and intelligent entity and not an uncoordinated collection of selfish “not my job” people.

People are naturally social beings. Conversation with others to solve jointly identified problems is a pleasurable and useful activity. However, people also have a tendency to form “in-groups” and “out-groups” which resist globally optimal solutions. The balance of these opposing tendencies can be shifted by allowing people the time, appropriate space, and lending management support to conversation and informally solving problems without resort to officially escalation.

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