The Force of Work

by Kristine Dery

Travelling through Mazentunnel[1] airport last week was one of life’s challenges. And not in a good way! The elaborate technicalities of corridors, escalators, rooms within rooms, and doorways means that the traveller is constantly being spatially tested and often found wanting. Seemingly to resolve this complex maze and prevent too many passengers being found at the end of the day still wandering aimlessly in the terminal, Mazentunnel have placed people at strategic points to direct the people traffic. For example there is a very stern looking person at the bottom of the escalator routinely pointing upward, just in case you were of the mistaken belief that the moving stairs, angled toward the ceiling, might go in another direction.

Fortunately, Mazentunnel Airport Corporation also thought to place a person (also non-smiling) in the bathroom to raise either their left or right arm to indicate which door you should take. Not a service I have ever before considered helpful, but there it was. Too bad, however, if you wanted to know which gate your flight was leaving from and where to find it, or needed to solve a more complex problem that often plagues travellers at international terminals. There were screens, automated kiosks, mobile applications or long lines at the Information Desk for more complex problem solving. Mazentunnel clearly felt the need to populate rather than popularize

Our latest research at MIT CISR suggests that we are essentially making one of three choices when we think about how work is done. We choose to either use (1) internal resources, (2) external providers, or (3) machines. Most work in large corporations is still carried out by people employed internally. While they may be engaged with automated processes, the work still requires significant human interaction. Increasingly, we are looking to external providers to outsource, contract, partner or form other types of associations to better manage the human talent, skills, and time that we need to augment or substitute internal work. The third choice is to replace human workers with digital applications or robotics. We refer to these choices around which mode is used to deliver work as as the “Force of Work”[2]. Allocating the way work is done to each of these modes has significant impact on both customer value and employee engagement in the digital era.

Digital environments are complex. We expect more from companies that we deal with than simply isolated products and services. Instead we are looking for end-to-end solutions to meet our individualized needs. Our on-line interactions are no longer based on one off transactions, but rather we expect a relationship that offers us informed choice, add-on products and services, personalization, and ease of purchase. In addition to all of this we want these capabilities to be delivered in a mobile, interactive, attractively designed format and we anticipate that the companies we deal with will maintain an on-going, pro-active relationship with us using digital capabilities to remember who we are and to recall our transaction history. This in turn raises our expectations around human interactions.

So when it comes to making those critical decisions around how work should be done, it is not only the task itself that we need to consider but also the way in which we deliver human interaction. Robots can often perform tasks better, faster and cheaper than humans can perform them. And robots actually seem to enjoy doing them (as opposed to those at Mazentunnel).

However, this means that when the customer does receive human touch, they expect this to be more skilled, more responsive, and more flexible and nuanced in solving complex problems. Companies that are experiencing higher levels of customer loyalty and satisfaction, are not simply tipping old tasks into new buckets of delivery. Rather they are re-thinking how end-to-end customer service is delivered and re-designing these processes and service around the capabilities in each of the three modes.

To do this they must: (1) amplify the voice of the customer to understand in real-time what they need to deliver, (2) dedicate senior management resources to decide how work will be organized, and then (3) implement a systemic learning process to constantly re-evaluate the best way to deliver quality customer focused solutions.

While companies like Mazentunnel continue to re-shuffle organizational charts to manage their Workforce more effectively, others are re-charting their organisation through the Force of Work.

Blog post written for DDRG by Dr. Kristine Dery, Research Scientist for MIT Centre for Information Systems Research (CISR) and leader of the Digital Workplace project. To follow Kristine and find out more about this research go to @kristinedery on Twitter or

[1] Clearly not the real name of the airport. Pseudonym used in this case but, honestly, could be most airports.

[2] This term was developed by the CIO of one of the companies in our study and has inspired us to examine it in more detail.

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