Last week, I wrote about complex systems and services, and the various conferences on these subjects that I had attended in the previous two weeks. I concluded my blog entry by saying: "It is particularly gratifying that while technology is the catalyst enabling such a [business] transformation, our biggest breakthrough is our newfound ability to integrate people into all aspects of our systems designs." I'd like to elaborate on that thought.
Because of advances in technology, in particular information technologies, all kinds of new opportunities have arisen for applying IT in innovative ways in business, society and our personal lives. In general, when we think of technology-based innovations, especially in complex problems, we think of automation, that is, applying those technologies to automate tasks or processes previously done “by hand.” Machines and automation have been the hallmarks of technology-based revolutions over the last couple of centuries starting with the Industrial Revolution.
Since the early days of computers in the 1960s, we naively assumed that it was only a matter of time and of our computers becoming faster and cheaper before we would similarly apply technology to automate major human capabilities like intelligence, knowledge and natural language understanding. While much progress has indeed been made in those areas in the ensuing forty years, it is fair to say that artificial intelligence, knowledge management and natural language processing are known as much for their exaggerated claims and failures as for their many successful applications such as Deep Blue and the Mars Exploration Rovers.
Through experience, we have learned the limitations in our ability to leverage IT to automate quintessentially human tasks, even many seemingly simple ones, no matter how fast our computers have become. I think that the key breakthrough that we have needed here is a cultural one - it is perfectly OK to integrate people in the design of our systems. A good, elegant design is one that lets machines do what they do best, and lets people do what they do best.
There are many tasks in complex systems that we should continue to strive to better understand, standardize and automate. However, for many, many more such tasks automation is a fool’s errand because of the complexity and inherent unpredictability of those tasks. Most tasks in this latter category tend to be in the realm of "services", that is, they are performed by people and/or they are performed for people. This is why, as we strive to continue to apply technology to all aspects of complex systems, there is now so much focus on services, including the emerging discipline of Services Sciences, Management and Engineering (SSME).
I find it truly liberating to be able to consider problems in business, health care, and other areas and not have to focus just on automation. My whole approach to complex systems has been totally re-framed and re-vitalized when I look at people not just as part of the equation, but often as the key variables in the equation. I can now think of complex systems as being composed of lots of components, which we want to incorporate into a holistic design and to which we can apply engineering principles and technology. But, we do not necessarily want to treat all the components the same way. At one end will be those components that are fully automated with no human intervention at all, and at the other end will be those components handled exclusively by humans, - with technologies being used to help those people become more productive and effective. In between, there will be many tasks that are partly automated and partly handled by people in varying degrees.
Using technologies to empower people in their work and life is clearly not a new concept. Most of the focus of PC applications, e.g., spreadsheets and word processing, has been centered on the concept of personal productivity. People empowerment truly went into overdrive in the mid ‘90s with the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web, which gave us an unprecedented ability to communicate with each other and access information and applications of all sorts.
In recent years, we have seen the empowerment of people continuing to accelerate with the advent of IT-based collaborative initiatives like Web 2.0, social networks, massively multiplayer online games (MMOG), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), and so on.
By integrating people into our system designs, we can leverage these community-based, people-oriented technologies into our complex engineering systems and SSME activities. This is very important for many reasons. First of all, it enables us to bring engineering, science and technology to bear on all aspects of the system, including the huge portions of systems that involve people and services.
There is increasing awareness, for example, of the power of social networking platforms for all kinds of important business applications, including those implemented within and between organizations in order to significantly improve expertise and productivity, and those implemented between businesses and their customers and intended to better support them, learn from them and hopefully establish closer customer relationships.
And, though still in early in the process, businesses are waking up to the potential of virtual worlds, MMOGs and MMORPGs for a wide range of activities, including holding more effective meetings and simplifying the interactions with the increasingly sophisticated and complex applications that we are now able to build.
Finally, there is a huge amount of energy and innovation out there around these new collaborative and highly visual, people-oriented technologies. Tens of millions of mostly young people are already frequent users of them. It would be really nice to tap into all that energy and innovation to revitalize not only our engineering systems, but all the applications around them, including those in business, health care, education and government. And - it would be even nicer if we could then attract a portion of those millions of young people out there into technology-based careers to help us design and build these next-generation systems and applications.