Wednesday, August 24, 2011

For whose benefit?

I keep seeing systems where "automation" is applied to benefit the wrong people - and where that automation actually leads to a much worse state of affairs. John Seddon of  Vanguard would have a field day with some of the horrors that we see. I suspect tha tRichard Veryard might too - applying the POSIWID (the Purpose Of a System Is What It Does) principle to some of the horror shows.

Let's take a couple of old chestnuts. HR systems. HR systems are generally designed for the HR department and not for the majority of poor suckers who have to use it - the employees. Somehow to be an employee, I have to be an expert in labor law, an expert in health plans, and expert in company labor policy, a mind reader - when do I have time to work?

Then expense claim systems. 2 (major) constituencies here. The people who need to be reimbursed for expenses they have incurred and the accounting (usually accounts payable) department, rolling up to management. Every expense system that I have ever used (except that of MomentumSI) seemed to favor the accounting over the employee. For sure there are corrupt employees, so lots of processes have to be put in place. Fiddling expenses = fraud = dismissal for cause in my book. So again taking a POSIWID view is the purpose (really) to get the employees their money back quickly or to manage the accounting? Actually there is a third possibility - make it so hard that employees would rather not claim than endure the pain.

And the last piece of idiocy comes from professor evaluations. It used to be the case that towards the end of the semester, the students were asked by the professor to fill in a paper form evaluating the professor against some predefined criteria. The professor would leave the room while this was going on. It took about 10 minutes, the forms were placed into an envelope, sealed and handed in. The data were entered somewhere and the scores tabulated and handed to the professor some time later - often at the beginning of the next semester. It worked pretty well. Most students filled the forms in and good data were obtained. Enter the internet, direct entry, etc. Now the students are pointed to a website whee they can fill in the scores. Of course there aren't computers in the classroom, so the students have to do it out of hours and it conflicts with the many other tings they have to do. And of course they have to remember. So now we have a much lower participation, a tendency to towards the extremes. Only people with strong views at the positove and negative ends tend to fill these in. It is so bad that some classes are bribed with extra "points" to fill them in (and what does that say about ethics and education), the data aren't as valuable as they used to be, and aren't even ready as soon as they were under the old system? Why you might ask? I can't come up with a great answer to this - except maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Moral of the story - just because you can "automate" a process doesn't mean you should.

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