I stumbled onto a somewhat interesting post over at HBR, which talks Garry Kasparov’s ideas in the business world. This is actually quite a relevant pairing, though an old one in the tradition of human-computer augmentation.
The idea a simple one, which takes far fewer words to express than the article took.
Use information technology to augment users, rather than replace them.
IT is good at lot of tasks, and less good at others. People, too, have their strengths and weaknesses. What’s interesting is that computers are weak where people are strong, and vice-versa. Computers excel as appliers of algorithms with huge memories and an attention to detail; people are powerful, creative problem solvers who have trouble thinking of four things at once and like coffee breaks. Why not pair the two, and get the best of both worlds.
Rather than replace the users, why don’t we use technology to automate the easy (for technology) 80% of what they do. (This is something I’ve written about before.) In the chess example, the easy 80% is providing the user with a chess computer for the commoditized solution space search, allowing them to focus on strategy. The performance improvement this approach provides can create an significant competitive advantage. As Garry Kasparov found, even a weak user with a chess computer can be impossible to defeat, by human or computer.
This then provides us with two options:
- Take the improvement as a saving by reducing head count.
- Reinvest the improvement by providing our users with more time to focus on the hard 20%.
(I must admit, i much prefer the later.)
If we continue to focus on automating the next easy 80%, we’ve created a platform and process for continual business optimisation. (Improvements in search efficiency would simply be harvested when appropriate to maintain parity.) Interestingly, this is one of only two sources of a sustainable competitive advantage available to us today.
The competative advantage with this approach rests with the user, in the commonplaces, the strategies, they use to solve problems. By reifying the easy 80% these strategies in software (processes and rules) we are moving some of the competitive advantage into the organisation with it can leveraged by other users. By continually attacking the easy 80% of what the users are doing, we are continually improving our competitive position. We could even sell our IT platform (but not the reified problem solving strategies) to our competitors — commoditzing the platform to realise a cost saving — without endangering our competitive position, as they would need to go through the same improvement and learning process that we did, while we continue to race ahead.
Now that’s scary: as long as we keep improving our process, our competitors will never be able to catch us.