People Manage People, Tools Manage Data

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

This was a principle for systems design suggested in a talk I heard 15-20 years ago. I can no longer remember the speaker’s name but I remember that he was in the disk drive business. Google has proven unavailing in sourcing it so it was probably an original insight with this engineer that hasn’t gained wider currency.

It should. People Manage People, Tools Manage Data

When I went back to Cisco for my second tour of duty in 1998 (I had been there from 1990 to 1994; the second time I was able to last until mid-2003 before I went back to being an entrepreneur) I was surprised at the number of workflow systems that were being designed and deployed to limit input and decrease options that could be requested. People were instructing IT to design interfaces that would do things they would never be so rude to do face to face, in e-mail, or over the phone. The designers were always surprised when they (or their management chain) continued to get e-mail and phone calls because people wouldn’t limit themselves to the options on the web form.

These were workflow systems and request tracking systems for what had been negotiations. So what’s my point? Anytime you set out to manage employees, partners, or customers with inflexible systems to channel their activities don’t be surprised when it doesn’t quite work out like you planned.

I am a huge fan of defect tracking systems, source code management systems, and any tool that allows you to get a better handle on the data thrown off by your actions. But be careful of trying to use software to “manage people.”

Winston Churchill observed that “We shape our buildings, and forever afterwards our buildings shape us.” So it is with our internal control and scorekeeping mechanisms. Be careful not to abdicate your responsibilities here.

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