… And Automation Shall Set You Free
The old fears are still with us: the more we let automation enter our lives, the less freedom we have. As Charlie Chaplin discovered in the movie Modern Times, we could find ourselves becoming just small cogs in a giant, cold and emotionless machine.
Indeed, these fears have some basis in reality. From the telecommunication provider computers that inexplicably decide to charge us more, to bank clerks that tell you “sorry sir, this is the only way we can enter it into the computer” (or worse, when the computer forces you to do things its way, with no clerk in sight), automation threatens to strip away the things that make us unique, the ways in which each of us differs from any other person. We are not interchangeable clones, but sometimes automated processes seem to treat us as if we were. If you ever find yourself wanting to shout at a machine: “I am not a number!”, this image should help – it says these words in EAN-128 barcode language…
Most of us realize we can’t escape these problems by doing away with automation. Yet, we can actually go a long way toward solving them by – believe it or not – adding even more automation.
When software becomes context-dependent, it starts behaving as you expect it to; instead of making you conform to its own behavior. For example, if you feel enslaved by your mobile phone, which beeps and chirps with messages and calls at the most inconvenient times, imagine a smarter smartphone which learns your habits, knows what you’re doing, and makes its own decision regarding how to notify you of incoming calls, e-mails and texts. No, I’m not talking about the phone making its own decision regarding which calls to answer. Simpler stuff would be quite useful: wouldn’t you agree it makes sense for the phone to automatically switch to “vibrate” when you’re in a meeting, or – when you’re driving – to delay the tones that signal an incoming text until you end your drive? And if you don’t agree, that’s fine – the smartphone will recognize you’re not a copy of anybody else, and will learn your own preferences.
Remember how previous-generation information systems tied us to our desks and our desktop computers, so that we’d be forever hearing and even saying “I’ll check that when I get to the office and I’ll give you a call”? Now, with smartphones, tablets, mobilized business applications and fast wireless data communications, we are free to find the information we need from any place, at any time. And we can still say “I’ll get back to you on that” if we wish…
Let’s take another example of how automation can set us free, this time from the world of field service: In the old days, field service engineers would receive a printed list of tasks at the beginning of the day, and would be expected to make all efforts to complete each and every one of these tasks within the promised appointment time: Even if some tasks were cancelled or took longer than expected, technicians had no freedom to rearrange their schedules accordingly. On the other side of the service interaction, the customer awaiting the service engineer would also need to meet the expectation of being at home for the whole appointment time, which might be 4, 6 or even 8 hours: Step away for a minute, and you might find the service engineer has come, left a “you were out” note and disappeared. What if engineers could dynamically exchange tasks between them, reacting to unforeseen events? What if customers could notify the service organization they’re going to be away for 20 minutes during the set appointment, and what if the organization could respond by saying either “OK, the engineer is going to be at your location in 50 minutes”, possibly even rearranging schedules to make that happen? Well, both of these are possible today, with the advent of real-time intelligent scheduling and customer interaction throughout the service engagement; and both of these are examples of intelligent automation that gives us more freedom than we had before.
Do you agree? What’s your favorite example of how automation sets us free?