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Find your human middleware

Editor's Note: Mark McDonald will be a keynote speaker at the 2012 Fusion CEO-CIO Symposium and a member of the Fusion 2012 Advisory Board. The keynote is "Amplifying the Enterprise: When Technology Trumps IT".


Where is your human middleware? Every organization has it, but few people see it for what it is – a sign of distortion. I first heard the term ‘human middleware’ when I was talking with a group of CIOs and a CIO from an insurance company commented that there organization did not really transform until the death with their human middleware.

Human middleware are the people in your organization whose responsibilities revolve around greasing the skids to keep things moving. Just like their technology counterparts, human middleware sits in the gaps between processes, they coordinate corporate messages, and they are both the grease that keeps things moving and the glue that keeps things from falling apart.

Human middleware are the additional customer service staff, the coordinators, the interfaces, the new roles and jobs created to make things work better. They are the first response to operational issues. They are the positive proof for executives who ask – are you focused on X? The answer, the team working on X is human middle ware – at least temporarily.

Human middleware can be difficult to see in your organization. Here is an example, consider a request to add people to an existing group or process. “We need more people, because our people are swamped, service levels are deteriorating, and with more people we should be able to set things right …” That is a request for human middleware. Another request comes in the form of people assigned to coordination, relationship management, or other roles intended to expedite achieving results. They are also additional levels of supervision, the need for smaller teams,
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Distortions create the demand for human middleware as the organization uses people to paper over one or more of the following situations:
  • Inconsistent business processes, which create multiple versions of the truth, conflicting business rules, complex operational interfaces, and different ways to get things done. All of which create bottlenecks, backdoors, and conflicting answers requiring people to figure it all out.
  • Inaccurate systems, that support different answers, support complexity, limit end-to-end support and require human intervention to figure out how to get work done.
  • Incomplete interfaces, that requires manual activities to transfer responsibilities, send messages, or coordinate with other departments to do work that logically fits into a single customer ‘transaction.’
  • Proliferation of too many ‘me too’ products in the portfolio, making it difficult to market, sell, serve and support as well as difficult for customers to figure out what they bought and how best to realize value.
  • Inadequate management capability and capacity, who treat the symptom of a performance problem as the cause of the problem and basis for the solution.
  • General inefficiencies across the organization, that crop up everywhere and anywhere in the organization, often justified by the idea that things just get more complex as we get bigger, move faster or do more things, mature as a company, or gain more experience.
  • Weak general management, that is more concerned with supporting short-term goals and maintaining harmony between executive fiefdoms across business functions than recognizing the need for re-integration and renewal. They allow people to build middleware staff, as it would upset people to point out a weakness in a particular group.
  • Baseline budgeting, that makes resources decisions based on a prior year’s baseline that bakes in inefficiencies and creates an inventive to keep and grow the middleware and budget as a symbol of executive influence or power.
  • Accretive change which is constantly asking for more, different, and additional stuff rather than favoring of keeping the organization capable and lean.
These situations create, allow or perpetuate the need for human middleware as the fastest way to get and keep things moving.

Human middleware is a silent killer of performance, responsibility and effectiveness. It starts with good intentions, it sounds good – after all who is against greater coordination, improved service, or greater time to market? All are business justifications for creating human middleware.

Human middleware is a considerable source of distortion in your organization. A few examples over the past few years include:
  • A global airline redeployed a whole layer of people across their organization whose job it was to navigate between the functions, systems and processes to get things done. The result was an improvement in operating performance of more than $200 million dollars and a drop in customer call volumes by 30% as customers no longer needed people to navigate their systems on their behalf.
  • An Asian based insurance company eliminated more than $100 million dollars of operating expenses, most in terms of human middleware, when they simplified their product set.
  • A High Tech company realized the human middleware within IT and eliminated and realized a 4X reduction in project cycle times.
Your experience will be different, but you cannot start to think about these levels of performance without recognizing that human middleware is the manifestation of internal distortions within your company. Only then can you get an idea on how to eliminate the distortions and amplify the enterprise.

Recent columns by Mark McDonald

Mark McDonald is a group vice president and head of research for Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-Author of the The Social Organization: how to use social media to tap the collective genius of your customers and employees. He also writes a blog on the Gartner Blog Network.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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