A decade ago in Scientific American, Mark Weiser of Xerox Corp. wrote, "The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it."
The ballpoint pen hasn't been considered a "technology" for 60 years, for example, although it is. The fact that we no longer see it as a technology has helped make that fact universal and transparent.
Likewise with computers, the farthest horizon is making them "disappear" into our workday and everyday lives. The answer isn't necessarily more powerful systems but rather a better understanding of what people truly need to do their jobs.
Clearly there are benefits of adapting systems to support the way people work. Reduced training, improved accuracy, and increased efficiency are just a few. Credit union executives are well advised to build support into their credit unions to accommodate for these changes and pitfalls to success.
The Disappearing Act
In the financial world, the "disappearing act" (making technology transparent) is especially important in branch operations, call centers and member support, where systems are sophisticated and training is a constant challenge.
As self-service websites and 800-numbers proliferate, the member calls and service requests reaching staff become even more demanding.
It's not unusual for representatives to access three or four different business systems, confer with supervisors and consult a manual-all while members are waiting for answers to their questions.
Staff burnout increases as the "downtime" from routine requests such as a balance inquiry or change of address (now handled by those self-service websites and 800 numbers) is replaced with more complex and challenging financial services requests.
As though that wasn't enough to take on, add to these challenges the changing demographics of the employment marketplace. On a regular basis, employers deal with more staff using English as a second language, a loss of core talent as large numbers of Baby Boomers retire, and increased rates of turnover.
For many financial institutions, the result has been a near-impossibility of training workers fast enough to maintain the competitive advantage of high-quality service. In credit unions, especially the larger credit unions, the challenge will be to "leverage the intimacy that they naturally have with their members," noted Steve French of MemberMAP, LLC, a Cincinnati-based CUSO and consulting firm serving the credit union community. Observed French, "Any technology needs to be designed with how their staff is going to interact with the credit union's members."
The Three 'Actuals'
In order to improve credit union performance while supporting member relations, the expert knowledge and learning resources need to be integrated with work context. To build a system that can transparently support job tasks, we advise beginning with the "three actuals": ACTUAL users, doing ACTUAL work, in their ACTUAL work environments. This research can be likened to anthropological fieldwork, where the observer is obliged to see, record and report what actually occurs, without the filter of preconceptions.
Observe staff. Disregard job descriptions or procedures manuals, which can easily be misleading. Take the time to see how the work is actually performed.
Interview staff. Talk with employees directly, and select several to get varied perspectives. Don't rely on second-hand information or just what the experts tell you. Often the expert has forgotten the "pain" that the less experienced individual faces.
Validate observations. Confirm that what is perceived as reality is actually occurring. Be sure to identify the root cause of why it is happening so the misconception can be corrected or eliminated.
Create "maps" showing the work processes. Document observations with "maps" or diagrams illustrating the tasks and work processes. Learn where in the process employees struggle or find mismatches with the current system and dispense with "workarounds" and other artifacts from past systems or procedures.
Do collaborative design sessions. Encourage users to "sketch" ideas of how the new system could work. Don't try to turn users into designers, but DO understand how they think about their work and what would enable them to better serve their members.
Create prototypes. Use rapid prototyping tools to create a "straw man" system for staff to use and critique. Stay on the right track by "testing" the prototype ideas with employees who actually will use the system.
Avoid the 'Ugly Baby' Syndrome
In the 1990s, author and consultant Gloria Gery spurred a demand for improved usability of computers with her observation that heavy training and support simply compensated for bad system design. The process of designing a system for months and then presenting it to the users for their feedback she likened to carrying a baby for nine months and then declaring it "ugly." Avoid the "ugly baby" syndrome by involving users early and often.
Gery asserted new systems must be "performance-centered," meaning the only true measure of systems design is how easily a user can "perform" or do the work.
To understand performance-centered solutions, consider four traditional workplace activities: getting information, learning, collaborating and working. In the past, getting information was done in the business library or through a mainframe, learning was done in a classroom, collaborating was done at the coffee machine or conference room, and work was done in the office or cubicle. In today's digital workplace, that model still exists, only employees must move from one system to another to achieve the desired results.
Performance-centered solutions support learning, reference, collaboration and work-by bringing elements of each into a single workspace, where and when an employee needs them. This support may include tools, advice or reference information, delivered to their desktop as the situation requires.
Employees get up to speed as quickly as possible, with minimal support from others. In many cases, this means employees who aren't experts can perform (with the support of the system) as if they are.
Create Support for Change
To propose that systems should adapt to people's needs, rather than having people adapt to constraints or weaknesses in the system, is a radical departure for many organizations but just makes sense. Consider ways to build support for change:
Leverage efforts to provide full-service financial relationships. "Traditionally, credit union staff have thought of their role as order-fulfillers," says French. "You can't do a two week training session on stocks, bonds, mutual funds and insurance and all of a sudden expect your people to adopt a new mindset. Technology is critical in being able to deliver this information at the time people actually need it." Use performance-centered solutions as a building block in relationship management programs.
Get everyone involved, early on, with a multidisciplinary team. Break down the "silos" preventing communication between IT and other departments. Identify projects underway, such as process re-designs, e-Learning, upgrades of legacy systems, or traditional training programs, that can be cross-pollinated into performance-centered solutions.
Focus on business success criteria. These metrics can include improved customer retention and satisfaction, shorter duration of customer calls, fewer calls escalated to management, or any other criteria used to measure service and performance. Get management's support by beginning with the bottom line. One very large organization found it spent $12 million annually just on travel for training.
Compare a one-time expenditure on performance-centered technology to annual training and retraining costs. Then add in the costs of staff members who actually forget what they learned between the time training occurred and when they actually needed the knowledge. Finally, consider the cost of replacing a member who hasn't received the value that your credit union is in the business of providing them.
Build on the tradition of credit unions as member-centered. Vast budgets and overarching design programs aren't substitutes for a common-sense understanding of how to create relationships. Learn about work frustrations that occur on the front-line or in backroom support areas, through a friendly proximity to staff and customers.
"Credit unions are such a fertile ground for this approach. Banks have thrown tremendous money at this problem, but whether they paid attention to the users and customers was another matter," said French. "None of it is going to do any good if the employees won't use it."
Technology Must Be Intuitive
Many of the technologies of domestic work, from vacuum cleaners to toasters, have been built to be intuitive in their uses-the job can be done, with no training required. Likewise, emerging entertainment technologies, such as DVDs, are "plug and play."
The same concept applies to technology and credit unions. Understand the three "actuals." Determine the knowledge and tools each employee needs to be successful in a given task. Build support for change. Work toward the goal of having staff that are confident, capable and in control of their jobs. Put knowledge in context, to support capabilities.
Future business technologies will be "walk up and work" solutions. Smart companies are managing their technology and human resources now, to make this future a reality.
About the Author:
Burton A. Huber is president and CEO of Ariel Performance Centered Systems, and has worked in the information technology field for 22 years. Mr. Huber can be reached at email@example.com or (513) 619-6339.