In a 2007 episode of NBC’s The Office, bumbling paper company executive Michael Scott (Steve Carell) relies on GPS for turn-by-turn directions to a business meeting. The system backfires, as mapping apps often did back then. Scott drives straight into a lake along with his trusty sidekick Dwight Schrute, played by Rainn Wilson.
Michael and Dwight swim ashore and return to their office in Scranton, PA, where Michael launches a jeremiad against technology. “People will never be replaced by machines,” he says. “In the end, life and business are about human connections. And computers are about trying to murder you in a lake. And to me, the choice is easy.”
Michael’s line is funny, in part, because it ignores the reality that even 12 years ago, human connections were mediated increasingly by computers. In October 2007, the month when this episode first aired, Facebook passed the 50 million user mark. LinkedIn was starting to take off as a platform for professional networking, with 10 million users that year. One year later, online dating services generated $957 million in revenue in the U.S. alone.
Everything that happens inside an organization boils down to interactions between people.
This connectivity has not, shall we say, been an unmixed blessing. The same technology that helps us share baby pictures, find jobs and spark romantic connections can also turbocharge hate speech, human trafficking and fake news. Algorithms designed to connect us with people who share our interests can also herd us into thought bubbles where we are insulated from political and social views that differ from our own. The digital-advertising model that fueled the spectacular growth of platform businesses like Facebook and Google depends on a tradeoff between relevance and privacy.
The late historian Melvin Kranzberg observed that technology “is neither good nor bad. Nor is it neutral.” He meant that the value of technology is determined by how people use it, not by the technology itself. Nowhere is this more true than in the enterprise, where digital platforms are transforming our basic understanding of what an organization is.
Since the modern corporation emerged in the 19th century, we’ve thought of organizations as collections of business functions: engineering, sales, customer service, HR, IT and so forth. Yet everything that happens inside an organization boils down to interactions between people. Most, if not all of these interactions take place between requesters who need something, and fulfillers who deliver that thing. Think customers and service reps, employees and HR specialists, IT users and IT providers.
In the past, these interactions were largely unstructured, meaning that if you needed to order a new laptop or change your computer password, you had to call or email IT. If you had a question about your benefits, you called HR. If you were a customer with an issue, you called customer service.
All those calls and emails amounted to a whole lot of inefficiency and reduced the time available for work that actually created value for organizations. That’s where digital workflow platforms like ServiceNow (the publisher of Workflow) come in: they automate and track workflows across the enterprise so that balls don’t get dropped, outcomes happen faster and employees don’t get bogged down by routine tasks.
Here at ServiceNow we use the Now Platform to run our own business. As my colleague Chris Bedi explains in a recent Workflow article, we’ve seen significant benefits from implementing digital workflows across the organization. Employee onboarding, for example, is a complex process that requires collaboration between HR, IT, facilities and finance. By digitizing this workflow on the Now Platform, we’ve accelerated the onboarding process by 60%. That’s good news for the company and for new hires, 86% of whom say they’re satisfied with their onboarding experience.
As Michael Scott learns by driving his car into a lake, technology is not a magic wand. Using a digital platform effectively requires a deep understanding about how work actually gets done across the organization, so that you digitize workflows that have already been optimized for efficiency. Ultimately, people are responsible for both the design and use of the technology that defines so much of our lives as citizens, employees and business leaders. If we make smart choices, we can achieve great outcomes.