Learning to automate work

I’ve been mulling Michael Schrage’s recent essay, Why You Should Automate Parts of Your Job to Save It, since I read it last week. Here’s the conclusion:

What is the most important thing you do on your job? What portion of that could be turned into an app that anyone in your organization could effectively use? What portion of that could be automated and fed directly into the larger system with only minimal review by you? What’s the least valuable but essential part of your job? Why aren’t you figuring out ways to automate it on your iPad or Android?

People with the best answers will likely discover they also have the best job security.

I agree with the premise. But something kept bugging me about the argument and today I realized what: the gadget focus. We’ve seen this before. Remember when computers in the schools were the answer? Now it’s smartphones and tablets in the workplace. But these are all just access devices. We focus on them because they seem more real than the networks they connect us to. It’s easy to see that devices made of metal and plastic are tools. It’s much harder to see that networks made of data formats and application protocols and communication topologies are tools. But information networks matter more than the devices we use to access them, or the applications that run on those devices. The key to the automation of knowledge work that Schrage righly prescribes isn’t learning how to use smartphones or tablets. Rather, it’s learning and then applying core principles that govern information networks.

Sadly we don’t teach these principles. Not even, in any systematic way, to information technologists. And certainly not to the bank loan officers and nurses and “iPad-wielding waitresses” in Schrage’s essay. Can it be done? I don’t know but I think I’d enjoy trying.

Posted in .

6 thoughts on “Learning to automate work

  1. The offer still stands — if you’d like to put together a lecture or two for Software Carpentry on fundamental principles of computational thinking, we’d be happy to foist ’em on scientists worldwide :-)

  2. Jon, this is a great post full of wisdom, thanks for your deep thought about such a topic. Regarding the focus on gadgets because they seem more “real” compared to the networks in the ether, I would have chose the words “tangible” and “intangible” to sort of reinforce this notion but essentially the say the same thing. It was also very refreshing to read your post about core principles (Seven ways to think like the web) — it is amazing to see how a huge mass of the world has not adopted these core principles and instead are relying on the centralized servers, proprietary systems / APIs and fenced in ranches provided by organizations like Facebook and Twitter. It may take a while for the world to learn on this score (I have friends who are otherwise intelligent, though not working in IT, who find the path of least resistance with email to get a “free” Gmail account with *.gmail.com address rather than set up their own domain name with MX records that they can control and point to whatever machine they want to handle their mail). This also reminds me, on your core principles post, you mentioned personal data stores and pub/sub networks … why is it that PubSubHubbub hasn’t taken off yet? Is the firewall issue and NAT / port forwarding (due to IPV4 and lack of uptake of IPV6) really what’s holding it back? PubSubHubbub strikes me as having a lot of future potential!

  3. the path of least resistance with email to get a ‘free’ Gmail account”

    I’ll argue that’s neither unintelligent nor irrational. Nobody has packaged up the own-your-identity alternative in a palatable way or made a market for that service.

    what’s holding PSHB back?

    My $0.02: lack of a sufficiently vibrant ecosystem of data feeds that would require and benefit from PHSB.

    I have been arguing for a couple of years that this is also what keeps holding iCalendar back :-)

Leave a Reply