You know, I’m a pretty good life insurance customer. I’ve had one policy for the last 10 years, I don’t smoke, I’m young(ish), healthy, I’ve paid all my premiums on time, and so far, I haven’t died. I figure that makes me just the kind of customer that insurance companies want. You’d think my insurance company would want to take care of good customers. I’m sure that they do. And yet…
Without getting too far into the thrilling roller-coaster ride that is my finances, what happened was this. I wanted to change the way that I paid the policy from a monthly direct debit to an annual credit card payment. I rang my insurer and had a nice conversation which ended with them assuring me that it was all changed. They took my annual payment, and then later that week debited my account for the month anyway. So I rang them back, and we had a slightly less polite conversation, where they assured me that no, this was really changed, and that they were very sorry.
This process repeated itself for 5 months. Yep, Five. Each time this happened, I incurred a bank overdrawn fee of $35.00, and my conversations with customer service became increasingly less polite.
After giving up on the polite, friendly, and utterly ineffectual customer service people, I tried tracing the problem myself. It turned out that there were at least five different people involved, three from different sections of my insurance company and two from the company that had acquired my insurance company. The monthly account debit guys didn’t get the message that I’d changed my billing cycle. The collections people didn’t get the message that I’d actually paid the account in full. The guys who process the annual payments had no trouble whatsoever in charging my credit card the full annual amount, but forgot to update my account standing. Guess what? During the previous five months, none of them had ever talked to each other about me or my account.
So it became my job to coordinate the information flow internal to a company that was supposed to be providing me service.
Each one of the people involved in my story all treated my case as something different:
The sad thing is that this sort of treatment didn’t surprise me. I’ve received the same treatment from the phone company, the cable company, and numerous other large organizations. In fact, the only surprising thing to me is how common this problem of disconnectedness is. I’m sure you each have your own horror stories to tell.
This “right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing” problem appears when functional barriers are imposed on the sharing of information, and an organization fractures to a point where any particular employee is unaware of the big picture.
The central cause of this problem is “Assembly Line” thinking — where it’s assumed that maximum efficiency comes from each person performing a single part of a greater task in isolation. (I think there are serious problems with treating your knowledge workers like robots. They get bored. They miss stuff. But that’s probably another post for another time.)
It’s tempting to treat this as an integration problem. The SOA process architects would see a failing of various systems to share the information between each other. But is the answer really more, bigger systems? Any one of the people involved in the process could have recognized what was going on very quickly if they had seen the whole context. People are natural pattern recognition engines. The best way to solve this problem is to increase the information available to the people. (It’s certainly not to build huge automated ‘expert’ systems that try to think. Then you just end up with no quack.)
Because Enterprise 2.0 tools capture this tacit, conversational context, hopefully they can help to solve this disconnect. Process-centric automation might work for building cars, but people function in social environments. Encouraging ad-hoc informal discussion between different sections increases the amount of context that people are exposed to.
The theory goes that more context leads to better awareness, and subsequently better decisions.