When Mixing People With Technology, Avoid Quick Fixes

While there are and will continue to be many uncertainties within the ever-changing business world, one truism remains: We are all customers, and for many (if not most) of us that means we want our own personal service representative. We wantand should expectsomeone who knows our needs and is always available and responsible.

Unfortunately, the need to provide these services finds some companies and agencies coming up short, frequently relying on technology to provide such service.

Some within the insurance/financial services community continue to believe that installing a new computer system or making adjustments on the one in place will cure their operational ills. However, new technology and quick fix approaches often give only partial relief from high cost service and productivity problems.

Our organization refers to such approaches as taking a “technological aspirin.” And, as with aspirin, they often treat only symptoms. Costly underlying flaws in jobs and organization structure often go undiagnosed and untreated. Sometimes technological enhancements actually exacerbate underlying weaknesses.

The message within is to avoid superimposing new and expensive technology on a work system with basic flaws in it.

The fact is, operating organizations often germinate and grow like onions. Response to crises tend to create new functions, layer after layer. The result is often enough to make a grown person cry. But, again unfortunately, such “mushroom management” continues to be practiced in some circles as a way to deal with the resulting trouble.

We continue to hear about technological implementation from various sources offering such services. Thats all to the good, of course, but in seeking new product innovations, its paramount to understand before going forth that there is no “perfect system.” And, even if one existed, it would quickly become outdated.

Further realities include the followingall-too-often found within the operations of insurance/financial services organizations:

Fragmented Jobs. Attempts to manage volume and complexity often result in fragmentation of work. Accountability and performance awareness are lost. Then organizations build large departmental empires on those fragmented functions and the problems are magnified. Line of sight to customers and clients is blocked.

Piecemeal Automation. Theres a tendency to automate in departmental pieces, the troubled ones first. The search for departmental fixes often fails to recognize a need for more comprehensive solutions.

Technically Narrow Expertise. It is not common for planners of technical systems to possess knowledge of motivational work design as well. So dont expect solutions that acknowledge both technical aid and human needs from them.

With these warning signs postedand further related to mixing people with technologyheres what organizations should go for to become all they want to be and should be.

The Macro View Of Operations. Diagnose your trouble or need by analyzing work flow and interfaces across the whole spectrum of functions before you decide that a technical fix for any one function is sufficient. Think like your client.

One-Stop Service. Strive to integrate all functions necessary to deliver full service to insureds and clients in a one-stopand ideally personalfashion.

Accountability For The Masses. Full function jobs and departments allow placing clear and substantial accountability for results on individuals up and down the line. Design your work system with that in mind.

Put Tradition To The Test. The period of change induced by technological applications offers a golden opportunity to question and test time-worn habits that may no longer be effective. Seize the opportunity to do so or those habits will be impacted in your new system.

Sample Wisdom At The Bottom. People on the job, close to the details, often can be amazingly analytical when asked. Test for their wisdom as plans are developed. Your employees must live with your brain children.

Teach Managers To Diagnose And Treat People And Structure Problems. Arrange for your managers to learn basic techniques for internal diagnosis and correction. You will have far less need for outside services and will build a continually evolving workplace.

Basically, the key to developing an effective and winning strategy for linking work effectiveness to automation is to know your business requirements and specify them to all involved within your organization. And that includes what functions you want the individual workstations to perform.

What any organization should be striving for, when it decides new technology is necessary, is a system that will operate significantly better than the existing one and will produce the breakthroughs in cycle time, reliability, productivity or quality that the business entity hopes to achieve.

When this is done, it is possible to make a fairly accurate prediction of how the process will perform based on whats already known about your organization. That means you and your associates knowledge of the available human, technological and financial resources, and your organizations ability to adapt to changeplus creating a detailed flow chart for the new design.

This flow chart should indicate all the subprocesses, activities and specific tasks to be completed in the new design, as well as material flows, information flows and decision points. With this information at hand, there are 2 techniques that can be used that will help predict the performance of a new technological work concept:

Estimating Requirements. Determine what resources will be required to maintain the proposed work process and to keep it operating smoothly is one way to assess its effectiveness before implementation. There are 3 basic categories of resource requirements that should be considered:

Human Resource Requirements. How many employees will be required to staff the new process? What types of employees will be needed (claims processors, technicians, customer service people, managers, etc.)? Who will provide any additional training thats required?

Information Requirements. What types of data or information will employees need access to in order to complete the process? How frequently will this data have to be collected? Who will be charged with maintaining or updating this data? What kinds of systems will be required to store the data?

Equipment Requirements. What kind of computer technologies (PCs, local-area networks, online systems, etc.) must be purchased or set up to facilitate the new process? Will “smart” or “expert” systems be used to automate activities, and who will install them? How many and what types of copiers, faxes, telephones or other types of office machines will be needed?

You may also want to consider physical plant requirements for the new process (office space, heating and air conditioning, for example) and supplier requirements, if they differ significantly from those for the existing process.

Calculating Benefits And Costs. Once the requirements, or “inputs” for the new process, have been determined, an analysis should be conducted of the probable results of the process: its “outcomes.” After all, you cant determine if an idea is worth implementing simply by deciding whether or not it “sounds good.” You must try to predict its impact.

The 2 most important outcomes to be considered during any thorough analysis are benefits and costs, and these should be stated as quantitatively as possible. For benefits, the areas that demand exploration are whether or not the new system will provide improved productivity, reduced cycle time, fewer defect rates and increased revenues.

As for costs, it is necessary to analyze what they are expected to be, taking into consideration added personnel (if needed), new equipment, any lost work time (related to employees training and indoctrination to the new system) plus, if needed, fees for consultants and technical assistance.

Finally, no matter how brilliant or imaginative the new technology and work design proposed, it cannot always be assumed that managers and other decision-makers will obligingly free employees assigned to them from the projects to which they are allocated and rededicate themselves to the change effort. Certainly, they can be ordered to do sobut thats stepping off on the wrong foot and is sure to cause morale problems.

Thats why it is so important to keep everyone posted and involved from day one when considering any technologicalor any otherchange. Such participative management continues to work very well. And one of the major reasons it does is because employees are not only amazingly analytical when asked, but asking them for their insights makes for a truly unified team effort.

John A. Uzzi is president of Roy W. Walters & Associates, a management consulting organization specializing in servicing the insurance/financial services industry, headquartered in Paramus, N.J. He can be reached at johnuzzi@roywalters.com.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, September 9, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.