24 Jan A funny thing happened on the way out of the back office
Take a deep breath. Now say “dis-intermediation.” Remember that word? It was as popular in Web circles in the late 90s as “solutions” is today in certain vendor circles. The long and short of it was that the Web was going to cut out the middle guy and let suppliers sell directly to consumers, either in business or retail.
Everybody still in the loop would take a slice of the middle-man’s cut, suppliers would get better prices, and so would consumers. A real win-win situation as long as you didn’t happen to be the middle-man. And it even worked. In a few situations. A couple of times. Kinda.
Turns out that middle-man wasn’t always just some fat guy skimming a percentage off the top for no real purpose. The knowledge of suppliers, the understanding of their products and pricing, and the logistics of getting a widget from supplier A to consumer B was something not every company wanted to invest the time to develop.
Maybe my cousin, the purchasing agent, thought it was all a good time, but I wouldn’t suggest everybody likes what he does or has the same skill set. The Web didn’t change the fundamentals of manufacturing, procurement, and logistics. Somebody, somewhere still has to understand all that stuff, pay attention to it, and often deal with it in batches of transactions.
So you may say, “That was the 90s. We were stupid back then but we’re smarter now.”
But I can’t help but hear this whispered warning that we’re headed down the disintermediation path again. This time we’re not cutting out some guy between us and our business partners. Now we’re trying to cut out some part of our own business that stands between us and our customers. Or worse yet, somebody – maybe even the customer – that stands between us and higher profits. Think about the last interactive voice response system you used that had absolutely no way to get to a live human being. Why’d they do that? Who got cut out of the loop and why?
In all the efficiency and best practices, down-sizing and outsourcing, we’ve been pursuing the twin goals of competitiveness and profitability. Not bad objectives if one wants to stick around for the long term, and admirable for IT to want to pitch in making progress towards these goals.
Of course, getting there is the trick that separates successful businesses from the others. It’s a complex path that requires different skills and perspectives to navigate well. As technology becomes a part of more and more business activities, we have to recognize the line between process and knowledge; systems and judgment, automation and innovation. Otherwise we might find ourselves eliminating that key check and balance or transforming idea, or at least the people that might bring those to the table.
In the rush to efficiency or simplicity or whatever, we rush right over that line that Einstein drew when he said “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.” In the past we seemed to make everything just a simple matter of technology and forgot about the business. Now in our rush to scramble out of the back office and into the boardroom we seem to be making everything a simple matter of business and forgetting about the technology.
And in either case we’ve never paid much attention at all to those bothersome humans with all their intellectual, psychological, emotional and financial quirks.
So what’s an aspiring technologist to do? Well, go ahead and get that MBA, if you really want to and pick up that business-speak. But remember the advice of one of my old foreign language instructors. The hard part isn’t the vocabulary, and it’s not the syntax or the grammar. It’s the accent and the idioms. We only pick those up through experience and use.
What he didn’t say was how much time that experience and use required. In one career, we might get really fluent in one professional language or even two if we’re good. But we can’t presume, no matter how much training and experience we acquire, that we or our systems should replace any particular person or process.
Look for native speakers and make alliances, build teams and promote diversity. The bottom line? Business has gotten global in more than just geography, and IT has to as well.
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.