In my previous column, I started a discussion about what people are good for in the digital revolution. There’s a lot of blah, blah, blah out there about the complexity of current business and technical environments and the need for better judgment, greater flexibility, improved communication and more dynamic creativity. What’s missing from that gray fog of biz-speak are pragmatic courses of action that apply the best source of those remedies – your people. Instead, that source is usually marginalized by the best practice, automation, outsourcing dance that is so popular at many management gatherings.
Managers, like most other groups of people, are just trying to get the best results they can with the understanding and capabilities they have. They have all too much experience with the negative impacts analog people have on business processes and technology. Repeated or received judgment hardens into prejudice and we get technology religious wars and bureaucratic delays. Flexibility fuzzes over into the indecision of paralysis by analysis. Communication decays into meaningless meetings and an undecipherable deluge of Web pages, e-mails and memos and our minds glaze over. Creativity fizzles into distraction and, finally, we just want to be left alone.
Plugging into analog people
People are going to be analog. No matter how much screening, training and coaching we do we won’t be able to specify, design and implement the perfect Stepford employee. So, what can we do to get the most out of analog people? A good start is to understand some key differences between the analog and digital world.
The first place to look is at the behavior of time. In the digital world, time is compressible. As long as you keep the bits and bytes separate, you can process them as quickly as you’re capable without any problem. In the analog world, with all its little nuances, time is not compressible. Reduce the time available and you will experience a corresponding reduction in the quality of those analog virtues: judgment, flexibility, communication and creativity. When technologies fail because of scheduling problems, it’s rarely because too much time was allocated. Usually too little time was allocated for communication, reflection and assessment. Yes, your competitors are out there trying to beat you to the door of your customer. However, arriving at your customer’s door with gasoline when what they want is a fire extinguisher is not a winning strategy. Compressing out the time required for human judgment and reflection rarely has the desired results.
The second place to look is in the response to variation. In the digital world, unanticipated variation is death. Everything must be reduced to a finite set of pre-determined states. Any unanticipated variation breaks the system. In the analog world, variation is life. It is the first step in evolution. Some variations work out. Some don’t. But we rely on variation to get and keep the creative processes running. Again, most technologies fail from too little anticipation of variation, not too much. Don’t ask your digital technology to anticipate variance. Ask your analog people to do that work and support them with time and encouragement.
The third place to look is at meaning. In the digital world, meaning is static. You add up the zeros and ones and you get the answer – the same answer every time you add up the same zeros and ones. In the analog world, meaning is ever changing. You bring together all the elements and you get some level of understanding. You bring the same elements together again and you get… a slightly different picture, or a completely different picture, or a sound instead of a picture. It may not all be meaningful, but it’s all real. As with time and variation, most technologies fail not from too much meaning, but from too little. Developing understanding and meaning are not tasks for technology. Technology does effectively repeat them once they’re developed, but that creative task is best reserved for your analog humans.
Being analog in a digital world
There was a time during the dot-com era when we became convinced that everything had changed. That was followed by a time when we were pretty sure nothing has changed. How digital of us. The answer, as always, lies somewhere in between. We all recognize that the digital revolution needs the analog virtues of judgment, flexibility, communication and creativity. The question is, how does the digital revolution accommodate the naturally analog people it needs, the best source for those virtues?
Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and
program development consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be
contacted via the e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone at
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.