Process or People

Article excerpt

The question of whether managers should pay attention first to processes or to people may remind some of the classic issue of precedence between chicken and egg (or of importance between heredity and environment). Certainly, any successful manager must effectively address both. The difficulty comes in knowing when to focus on which and how to remember the one while focusing on the other. The manager who ignores basic flaws in processes to concentrate on cajoling, inspiring, or threatening his staff to "make it work anyway is destined for disappointment. Equally unprofitable is thinking only in terms of reengineering or perfecting a process that the staff lacks the ability or desire to perform.


Despite the common-sense realization that both process and people are critical in a modern office environment, we inevitably tend to lean one way or the other. For me - and many others in records management - process is probably the most tempting. One needs only to attend a professional association conference to realize that the most popular sessions center on technology and procedures rather than employee relations. There are many reasons for this attraction. First, the leading role of process in economic activity is undeniable. It was a series of innovations in processes (land enclosure, crop rotation, and horse-drawn plowing) that made possible the agricultural revolution in the late seventeenth century. The division of labor and machine power made possible the even more dramatic industrial revolution of the late eighteenth. The development of rail transport made possible the "second industrial revolution in the mid-nineteenth century. New modes of transportation, communication, and energy generation once more revolutionized our way of life in the twentieth century. From a long-term historical perspective, process has driven the development of our economy.

Given its primacy in the economy, we are hardly surprised that managers have traditionally been engrossed in process. After all, they have been hired and fired based on their ability to produce success. Their modus operandi has been to plan for the process, budget for the process, hire staff to carry out the process, direct the process, and monitor the performance of the process. Certainly, people - employees - have entered into this job as an essential ingredient (probably even more important than others like raw materials and plant), but they have been still subservient to the process.

Not only is process important from the macroeconomic and traditional management standpoint, but it is also fun and relaxing. Finding or inventing the most efficient way of doing something contains the same challenging adventure as a game of poker or a chess match. Like those activities, it is also devoid of the frustrations and emotional stress of dealing with politics, people, and, personnel paperwork. Whether we call it work simplification or systems analysis, it is the aspect of management that provides instant gratification. Using plastic templates for our process diagrams, we chart the most expedient workflow of the systems we manage - without having to listen to all the employees' whiny complaints about why it can never work. We do not have to listen to why they want to do things as they have always done, even though it takes twice the time. We don't have to hear about why they are not paid enough, why they must work so hard, and so forth. Later, rather than negotiate with recalcitrant offices, field complaints from the public, and handle employee gripes, the records management supervisor or manager can escape to the peace of his office and begin translating the work flow diagrams, work simplification sketches, and procedure rationalizations into consistent, handsomely bound policy and procedure manuals - complete with playscript formatting, cross-references to other policies, and elaborate indications of version. Adding self-satisfaction to pleasure is the ease with which the time spent on producing these charts and manuals can be justified. …


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