We may very well be in the golden era of automation.

While we have been automating since the very first days of the modern computer age, the pace, depth, and breadth of automation efforts are unlike anything we have seen previously. These automation efforts are now reaching into the deepest recesses of the enterprise and doing so at a staggering pace.

The reasons for this automation rush are apparent. The promises of increased efficiency, improved customer experience and employee experience, and the ability to move human workers to higher-value functions are enticing and easily justified to even the most tightfisted CFO.

But what if these benefits were never to materialize and the mountains of automation investment turn out to be nothing but a waste of human and financial capital?

Is Complexity the Culprit?

At first blush, this idea that automation will turn out to be a wasted investment seems preposterous.

If you take a look around at what is happening inside enterprise organizations, however, it seems that this may be precisely what is happening.

If I compare a contemporary IT operations team to the one I ran over twenty years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find the difference. Yes, some of the logos are different, and the technology is unquestionably faster, more efficient, and more advanced.

But what have all those advancements delivered for the IT organization?

Not much, it would seem.

IT organizations have more staff than ever before and are dealing with many of the same problems that haunted us twenty years ago.

And this isn’t just an IT issue. We have deployed automation in vast quantities throughout the entirety of the modern enterprise, and the results are much the same everywhere. Enterprises still employ armies of people functioning in much the same way as they have for decades.

What gives?

One of my most recent mantras has been, It’s the complexity, stupid.

By that, I mean that increasing complexity is the reason organizations continue to struggle with the same operational issues and must employ evermore staff. Every gain automation has earned them has been offset by a corresponding rise in the complexity of their technology stack.

I continue to believe that exponentially growing complexity — both with the technology and with rapidly evolving business models — is a real and significant problem with which enterprises must grapple.

But it may not be what’s really going on here.

Remembering Parkinson’s Law

The term Parkinson’s Law was coined in the 1950s.

Originally used to describe the cause of seemingly endless busywork in the British government, the term explained “that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

In technology circles, we have used the term to explain why adding more people to projects rarely improves the results and, ironically, often has the opposite effect. It’s an adage that has stood the test of time because we can all observe its truth.

I was reminded of this recently while reading an article in The Atlantic titled, Three Theories for Why You Have No Time.

In it, author Derek Thompson was using the law to explain why technology-derived productivity gains — how new technology in the 1950s designed to automate housework, for instance — did not result in a bunch of leisure time for Americans in the first heyday of consumer technology development.

Thompson observed that this was a recurring theme.

Whether it was 1950s housewives or modern-day workers suffering from burnout, better technology rarely led to a reduced workload because it merely changed the rules of the game. “Better technology means higher expectations — and higher expectations create more work,” he explained.

So while growing complexity is a genuine challenge for the modern enterprise, it may be the rise of our old friend Parkinson that turns out to be the real destroyer of automation investment returns.

Well, sort of.

The Leadership Problem with Enterprise Automation Efforts

We often think of Parkinson’s Law in terms of a sort of subconscious, personal reaction. It’s something that happens on an individual level.

Thompson, however, made a prescient observation when evaluating how all of this was related to burnout rates with modern employees: they don’t have sufficient agency to overcome Parkinson’s Law by themselves.

On the one hand, Parkinson’s Law is personal.

The reason that work fills the available time is often that we don’t want to appear to be unneeded. While this may happen consciously or subconsciously, the result is the same. For most people, finishing your job early doesn’t mean that you can call it a day and head home — at least if you still want to get paid. So, instead, the work fills the time available.

Thompson’s observation, however, points out that this isn’t just an instinctual response. Instead, it’s an entirely predictable reaction to a structural problem.

Any productivity gain not coupled with a shift in expectations in terms of responsibilities, working hours, and so on, will unavoidably leave workers with no choice but to consume that gain in any way they can so as not to seem irrelevant and, thus, expendable.

Lacking the agency to change the structural management models themselves, workers must rely on Parkinson’s Law to compensate. “Technology only frees people from work if the boss — or the government, or the economic system — allows it,” Thompson cautioned.

The real cause of Parkinson’s Law isn’t the workers failing to reap the benefits of productivity gains — it’s the systems that enterprise leaders have built to manage those workers that create an environment in which there is no other option.

Which brings us back to the challenge of automation.

While all of this technology-powered automation will unquestionably deliver massive productivity gains, there is no reason to believe that organizations will realize any of it — unless enterprise leaders first transform their operating paradigms.

It’s Cultural Transformation That Will Unlock Automation Gains

If you’re an enterprise leader, this is a story you know well. Simply deploying technology will not deliver the results you seek.


Tag/s:Automation, Customer Experience, Future of Work,