Software automation won't necessarily lower staff costs

Automate to make systems more reliable. Automate to make them more effective. Even automate to make them more efficient. But don't automate to eliminate people, at least not if the system is mission critical. You need even more highly trained, professionally-alert staff, to step in when it all goes pear-shaped. And it will.

From this excellent blog article Automated to Death

operators are being asked to be omniscient systems administrators who are able to jump into the middle of a situation that a complex automated system can’t or wasn’t designed to handle, quickly diagnose the problem, and then find a satisfactory and safe solution. And if they don’t, the operators, not the system’s designers, often get the blame.

Bear in mind this article is about systems (airplanes, ships) that have been tested to the ends, debugged until they roll out of the factory as near to bug free as is humanly possible. They get broken later. The sort of complex systems most of us work with - factories, offices, government, hospitals, military... - are chronically broken.

So when the vendors tell you their software will reduce headcount, assess how much it matters when the automation fails, then assess how many staff you need who are professional enough to still be awake and sober and paying attention (think Homer Simpson in the nuclear plant) and skilled enough to correctly work out what to do and take control. Like the Malaysian airline pilots in the article, they don't need to diagnose the problem, but they need to know their system intimately enough to guess what is going to restore service.

However software vendors can draw comfort from one other quote in the article:

if you deliberately engineer anomalies into the automation, people rely less on it and will perform a little bit better in monitoring the system. For example, if the system is 90 percent reliable, operators will be better at picking up the 10 percent of the errors than if the system is 99 percent reliable.

This justifies what they've been doing for years.


"Reduction" really means "reallocation"

In my experience, when technology managers evaluate claims of "reduces headcount" they understand that to mean "allows your staff to spend less time on manual labor and more time on value-producing tasks".

I think it's laziness on the part of the automation vendors that promotes this simplistic view that automation allows you to actually reduce the number of people on payroll. Or perhaps its a deliberate and shrewd attempt by the vendors to trick corporate bean-counters.

Either way, when I talk to technology managers they don't actually want less people... they just want the smart ones they have to spend their time on the laundry list of things that don't get done because they spend so much of their time stuck in the mud with tasks that should/could be automated.


Brilliant post... Automation

Brilliant post...

Automation is becoming more and more misunderstood/misused like outsourcing...more companies (people) i come across are outsourcing problems which is bad.

Moving the load

So I agree but with slight refinement..

I do believe software does seek to automate process and reduces manual labor in all facets of the workplace. In fact, to do the same work, you might need less people, but more highly skills/trained and cost more (so don't think its a saving). This is almost always masked by the inability for most organizations to transition in this manner (ie. skill transformation).

Additionally, I think workloads just move to other processes and tasks. We spend time doing other things to replace the automated processes. Whether this is a result of not being able to transition skills and therefore redeploying staff to other processes of similar complexity is a simpler fix.

Its a pretty similar ecosystem to many other aspects of business. Jobs get eliminated or changed and companies adapt. It most organization its not like we have the time a resources to do everything we need to do. Software based automation is just a way of moving resources from one place to another.


Brad Vaughan

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