Connecting Beyond Automation


Simplicity. It’s a concept that philosophers, poets, mathematicians and scientists have embraced and championed throughout time. As complex beings, most of us find elegance and comfort in simplicity: life’s simple pleasures, simple design, and simple processes.

Most of us also want things to run efficiently. We laud the efficiency of Hong Kong’s train service. We don’t like being put on hold after navigating five steps of a customer service process. Filling out the same medical history over and over again seems inefficient and unproductive.

And third, we like to solve problems. Throughout history, people have always identified obstacles and taken steps to address them, often in the name of making things simpler, faster and cheaper. When Boston’s asymmetrical cobblestones proved untenable for wagon wheels, the city replaced them with setts, which brought smoother, more efficient travel by horse-drawn carriages. Horse-drawn carriages and horsecars later gave way to electric-powered streetcars, which offered much faster and economical transportation throughout the city.

Making things more efficient and economical is always a good thing, but when it’s our primary end goal, we limit ourselves at best, and at worst, introduce a new set of problems. Electric-powered streetcars delivered nicely on their promise of faster and cheaper transport. They also brought crippling congestion to Boston’s narrow, winding streets.

We can see the same phenomenon in industries today.  To drive greater efficiency in healthcare, for instance, we retired paper and introduced electronic medical records. Digitizing medical information is critical, but in doing so, we’ve also seen the rise of closed, monolithic technology systems that impede the efficient sharing of medical information. The lack of information sharing not only means we continue to fill out our medical histories over and over again; it can mean the difference between life and death when a patient can’t communicate allergies or current medications in an emergency situation.

It’s only when we step back to reimagine how the world should work and could work – not just how it can operate more efficiently – do we make real leaps in progress. When we change our thinking and focus on the optimal outcome and experience, that’s when amazing things happen, including new levels of efficiency and simplicity.

When streetcars created gridlock on Boston city streets, people knew there must be a better way. Taking advantage of advancements in technology, they announced “the first car off the earth” with the opening of the city’s first subway line in 1897 — and transformed people’s experiences.

Today’s technology – the Internet, the Cloud, and mobile phones, watches and wearables – give us an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine the world and transform experiences, not just automate or improve existing processes.

Consumer businesses seized the opportunity early. Focusing on outcomes and experiences, rather than efficiency and cost, Apple, Netflix and Hulu, for example, have created networks that allow content and applications to be discovered and consumed instantaneously, reinventing media as we know it. Amazon and eBay have not only done the same in retail, they have pushed the boundaries for using data to enhance the experience of buyers and sellers. Beyond enabling a transaction, they are using context – an understanding of their customers and their needs — to deliver personalized information out to the consumer on the device of his or her choice. They have redefined the user experience by putting it at the center and leveraging the collective efforts of every member of the ecosystem to serve and optimize it.

It’s time to apply the same model in business. Sure we can simply automate the process of managing expense reports and reimbursements. But wouldn’t it be better to anticipate bad spending and stop it before it happens? Wouldn’t it be better to anticipate the ways that businesses and employees would like to spend and enable those better choices more quickly?

As Uber and Airbnb have shown, to deliver entirely new experiences, not just automate them, we can – in fact we must — use a public cloud service with an open architecture and a totally integrated and connected ecosystem. This “business network” delivers real-time data across the ecosystem to provide connected, transparent and effortless experiences for individuals and the companies they work for. I can book a flight outside of the corporate travel system, still get my company discounts, and automatically populate my expense report. And my company knows where I am. When my United flight lands, I’m asked if I want a ride to my hotel and automatically checked in. I can gain a new level of transparency and insight to readily detect and remedy unethical sourcing in my company’s supply chain. When I get a referral from my doctor to see a specialist, I should rest assured the specialist has my medical history.

As we move forward in today’s digital economy, every single business process that can be automated will be automated. Every single process that can be connected will be connected. And when you connect those processes with intelligence – with an awareness of context – systems can start to work on your behalf in amazing ways. This is the mandate for business today – to reimagine the way things should work and harness today’s technology to make that vision real.

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