Computer-orchestrated work

This post is part of my collaborative research with Shinsei Bank on highly-evolvable enterprise software.  It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.  I am indebted to Jay Dvivedi and his team at Shinsei Bank for supporting this research.  All errors are my own.

In my research on computer-assisted organizing, I set out to understand how computers alter the fabric of organizations.  Here’s how I framed the problem in my dissertation:

In the computer age, complex information processing tasks are divided between humans and computers.  Though designed and developed by humans, computers are autonomous agents that function as independent decision-makers.  The dynamics of electronic information processing influence the dynamics of organizing and organizations in ways that cannot be understood in purely  human terms. (Brunner, 2009)

My dissertation focused primarily on two aspects of this transformation: how computers drive further specialization in information processing work, and how computer-assisted work increases business scalability.  A third aspect of the transformation had been on my mind ever since my days as a management consultant: it seems that computers and people are trading places within organizations.

In the past, humans created organizational structure through their patterns of interaction, while computers were plugged in to this structure to perform specific tasks. Increasingly, these roles are reversed: computers create organizational structure, while humans plug in to the computer system to perform specific tasks.  Shinsei Bank’s mortgage loan operations provide an elegant example of the phenomenon. Rather than human credit approvers managing the loan application process from beginning to end and using computers to perform calculations or look up policies, a loan application system manages the process, calling on human appraisers, data entry clerks, analysts, or supervisors to provide input as necessary.

In Jay’s words, the computers orchestrate the work.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines orchestrate as follows:

To combine harmoniously, like instruments in an orchestra; to arrange or direct (now often surreptitiously) to produce a desired effect.

The word seems apt. In computer-orchestrated work, computers arrange and direct business processes in order to “combine harmoniously” the work of individuals.  Much like an assembly line, computer-orchestrated work enables individuals to focus on simple, well-defined tasks, while computers handle the coordination and integration of these fragmentary outputs. As bureaucracy1 eliminated the reliance of organizations on specific individuals by defining roles, so computer-orchestrated work enables organizations to survive without the patterns of human interaction that define and sustain the structure of traditional organizations.

Computer-orchestrated work may greatly increase organizational performance. By lowering to nearly zero the marginal cost of coordination and integration, computer-orchestrated work makes possible greater specialization, which accelerates learning and increase efficiency. Moreover, computer-orchestrated work lowers the costs of monitoring and metering, potentially reducing agency costs. Computer-orchestrated work is easier to analyze and modify, which facilitates innovation and increases the returns to highly-skilled human labor (c.f. Zuboff, 1989). Although the design challenges are significant, computer-orchestrated work may be an essential tool for creating more intelligent organizations.

1In the Weberian sense, as a highly effective organizing technology.

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6 thoughts on “Computer-orchestrated work

  1. Brad

    Nice job of turning things around to give a new perspective. The only thing I might add is that many if not most organizations consist of computer-orchestrated work. Think about the role of ERP systems in companies. If you want to add an order you have to use the system, it is the only way. While many companies use computer-orchestrated work, many companies also do it poorly. For example, the enterprise system defines how work is done, but it cannot be changed (or at least not changed easily). The transparency, flexibility, and perhaps simplicity of Shinsei’s approach is what remains so different (and remarkable).

  2. Zahoor ul Islam

    How do you define or differentiate the computer orchestrated work as proposed by Mr, Jay and other discipline like BPM , Business process automation, movement for SOA and Enterprise Architecture.

    Any modern BPM tool essentially allow me to orchestrate the work in the modeler, design and run the process.

  3. David James Brunner

    Zahoor, thank you for your thought-provoking question. Categorizing the different approaches to computer-orchestrated work, and clarifying the dimensions along which they differ, will likely be an important step in developing a powerful theory of computer-orchestrated work. Some categorization schemes have been offered, such as Zuboff’s (1989) automating-informating distinction, and Autor, Levy & Murnane’s 2002 article “Upstairs, Downstairs: Computers And Skills On Two Floors Of A Large Bank” provides some intriguing empirical color. At this point, however, I’m not yet prepared to attempt such a categorization.

  4. Zahoor ul Islam

    Great, anyway this question has been puzzling my mind for long time. I know the subtle difference in Jay approach and rest of the approaches though not extensively. However it always be difficult to explain to others as peoples always tends to map things and finding one to one mapping between elements.

    Can you pass me the link from where I can access Zuboff paper.

  5. LV

    Hi David,
    Its really inspiring to read all the blogs of Shinsei IT Innovation .IT in Shinsei makes one continually energetic and motivated to highest level of maslows theory .Hardly one would get an experience of real 360 implementation and use of enterprise systems effectively


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