When Man Meets Machine

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Man meets MachineJob design is about the synthesis of roles in firms.  Job analysis allows existing roles to be described.  But we live in a computer age.  Roles are done in part by people and part by machine.  In days gone by we could separate man and machine but today most roles are automated or in some way computer aided.  Computers reduce the competency needed in most roles.  Operatives can achieve outcomes speedily without involving themselves in complex calculations and processes.  So how do we construct roles and how do we determine the competencies needed by both ‘parties’ to the arrangement?

The User Must Be Able To…

We define what a job holder does by describing the activity or function.  We can say it in English or we can model it.  And the same is true of the computer.  The user requirement specification comes at the definition from a joint perspective – “the user must be able to…”.  The user must be able to do something with the computer and its programmes to achieve an outcome.

This can then be elaborated to yield the functional specification for the computer system where the language changes to definition of function points.  Functional specifications are often built using modelling techniques with English or mathematics  used at the final level to describe singular functions.  A function point might describe the singular calculation of the interference between new and existing radio stations when a spectrum manager assigns a frequency to a new provider.   But what role does the computer play and what competency does the operative need to complete the activity?

A Worked Example

In the example above, the operative must inspect the new application, load the new station to be tested to the computer, get all existing stations affected (using a geographic filter perhaps) and then invoke a complex software algorithm to make the calculation.  The operative must then assess the result and determine if the test is passed or if another frequency is to be evaluated and communicate the result to the applicant.  In this case, the operative must have competency in loading the link to be assessed, filtering data, in assessing interference between stations from a computer generated result and the interpersonal skills to discuss subsequent options with a human applicant.

Imagine instead that the application is made over the Internet through an online application form.  The form demands the right syntax and checks the content automatically.  The computer automatically gets other stations affected, performs the same complex calculation and returns the optimum result to the operative.  Imagine too that once inspected, the result is emailed to the applicant.  The operative has little to do and their job needs very different competency.

The two roles are substantially different and the job holder is likely to experience hugely different job satisfaction in each.

When Man Meets Machine

The key to establishing the balance between man and machine is to achieve an adequate model.  If a comprehensive model is built for a job, each activity can be coded.  Function points that are substantially machine and activities that are substantially man will become clear and deliberate decisions can be made about what to computerise and what to leave to man.  Through function point and activity modelling the differentiation can be established.

The competencies that are needed in order to undertake each activity given the computer function points can be determined and hence the computer operative job description can be developed.  Jobs can then be designed for operative skill variety, task significance, autonomy, co-worker interaction and all the other antecedents to job satisfaction rather than just blind productivity.

We might even find reason to reduce the involvement of the computer in order to enhance staff engagement and commitment!

This blog aims to open a dialogue about the role of the computer in job design.  If it has interested you and you’d like to know more, do call us to discuss.

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