The Changing Nature of Work

The Changing Nature of Work
Contributed on April 15, 2020
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Back in 2011, I gave a keynote at a BPM conference entitled “The Changing Nature of Work”. As long as I’ve been designing and building systems to automate business processes, I’ve been interested in how the technology changes how people work; at that time, I was focused on the impact of unstructured knowledge work and social collaboration on more traditional pre-defined processes. My “spectrum of structure” diagram was widely circulated (and imitated), and resulted in the most commented-on blog post that I’ve ever written. Since that time, I’ve remained interested in trends on how work is changing due to (or enabled by) technology, plus the impacts of globalization and regulatory trends.

Over the last several weeks, work has changed radically for many organizations and their employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The biggest visible change is the switch to distributed work, where employees work from their homes: a change that many organizations claimed was not possible until they were forced to do it. There are many other changes, such as supply chain disruptions and the restriction on people’s movements, that are stalling some organizations while overloading others.

For organizations that don’t create tangible goods, such as government and financial services, technology is making it possible for them to offer services to customers even though their offices are closed. There is an opportunity now to take on business automation initiatives that will not just allow organizations to adjust to the “new normal” but can increase competitive differentiation: an important consideration when many organizations are just hunkering down and trying to keep the lights on. The list of things to be addressed is not radically different than any automation project in the past, but may have a pandemic twist to them:

Physical documents need to be removed from processes

Physical documents (and other content) need to be removed from processes. When workers are distributed, moving physical paper between them is slow and expensive, and there are few remaining legal requirements for paper versions of documents. Physical content arriving from outside an organization must be converted to digital form immediately at the point of entry – or better yet, uploaded by customers in digital form – to become part of distributed processes.

Processes need to be analyzed and modeled in anticipation of automation

Processes need to be analyzed and modeled in anticipation of automation, and to ensure that all required steps are still happening in a distributed environment. With workers scattered to different locations, and restrictions on personal interaction, this understanding is not going to happen through the usual analysis methods such as job shadowing or in-person interviews. Furthermore, processes will have changed, either explicitly or tacitly, in response to the distributed work environment. Instead, process mining (including desktop agents that monitor user actions across multiple applications) will be a critical tool for business analysts.

Workers need to have a work environment that supports their assigned tasks

Workers need to have a work environment that supports their assigned tasks. Depending on those tasks, that may include collaboration tools for working with colleagues, integrated phone and chat systems for customer support, streamlined content review screens, or a broad informational context about a customer. To support distributed workers, this needs to be sensitive to slower network speeds and guard against malicious network intrusion.

Work needs to be routed seamlessly to the right worker at the right time

Work needs to be routed seamlessly to the right worker at the right time regardless of their physical location. It is no longer possible for managers to assess and redistribute workload by walking around and seeing how much is on each person’s desk; work (re‑)assignment and delivery has to be automated, with built-in monitoring for compliance and performance metrics.

Tasks need to be automated wherever human interaction is not required

Tasks need to be automated wherever human interaction is not required. With the radical upheaval in business processes, this is an opportunity to rework and automate tasks and decisions to reduce the routine work performed by workers.

These last two points – the automated flow of work, and automated tasks – are the cornerstones of intelligent automation, and may combine decision management, machine learning and artificial intelligence with more traditional process automation and collaboration platforms.

This is also a time to brush off those low-code application development platforms and make them available to everyone who has the time or inclination to create a new application. Many workers may not have enough work to keep them busy, and using some of them as a citizen developer workforce allows organizations to keep their team employed while creating the applications of the future.

We often talk about digital disruption, or disruptive innovation, where a completely new technology changes the way that a market works. The current situation is turning this around: we have a market and societal disruption that is changing the way technology will be used. How organizations choose to deal with this crisis will determine whether they exit it as market leaders or laggards.

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