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Among the biggest barriers to productivity today is the problem of human middleware, where people are spending their time sifting through applications, data bases and platforms to find the information they need to get their real job done. In a blog post, Mark McDonald, a group vice president at Gartner, described human middleware as a “silent killer of performance, responsibility and effectiveness.”
“In the technology world, we think of human middleware as the people who need to use more than one screen to do their job,” says Michael Monteith, CEO of Toronto-based tech startup ThoughtWire, the company he cofounded and launched in 2009 to help companies address the human middleware problem. As it turns out, the timing was perfect. Hit by the global economic downturn, organizations were looking for new tools to address old problems and boost productivity. Enter software agents, the technology ThoughtWire uses to create solutions for its clients and which Monteith describes simply as “the best personal assistant any user of a computer ever had” and the key to unlocking the most valuable asset of any organization: people.
In effect, software agents are computer programs that can take care of the mundane, repetitive tasks in order to allow people to do what they are trained to do: make decisions. “Computers are really good at processing massive amounts of data and programmatically making recommendations and automating mundane tasks. So our focus is creating leverage, where computers are assisting so people can stay focused on their jobs,” says Monteith.
Siri, the intelligent knowledge navigator on Apple’s iPhone is among the latest and most advanced example of intelligent agent technology. “The opportunity here is the strategic differentiation of your business to that of your competitors. That’s the value proposition of eliminating the human middleware problem. If we can focus people on doing their jobs as opposed to focusing on the complexities you never want customers to see, it’s going to raise everyone’s game.” And that is what ThoughtWire’s software does for its clients.
“The evolution of software agent technology dovetails with the growing volume and velocity of information and the leveraging of that data to drive a higher level of awareness about what’s happening in an organization and on the ground with customers,” says Monteith. “The opportunity for CIOs is to capitalize on their investments in big and enterprise data and to focus on transformation inside the organization. That’s how organizations can drive productivity and innovation.”
From where he sits, Monteith sees resolving the human middleware problem as one of the largest sources of untapped ROI in organizations. In fact, he says, investment in human middleware dwarfs investment in technology both in direct cost as well as the opportunity cost to the organization: people wasting time looking for information rather than using their experience and intuition to drive a great outcome.
“It’s about leveraging technology to enhance the human experience, whether it’s somebody inside the organization or outside, so they can stay focused on what it is they are trying to do.” says Monteith.
The Cloud and tailor-made technologies allow organizations to do just that without having to invest in huge infrastructure. Small pockets in an organization no longer have to wait for the big omnibus project in order to take advantage of the latest technology. As Monteith explains, “That is one of the strategic advantages of this new capability: the ability for businesses to be more agile. You can start solving problems on a smaller scale and get that incremental value in ROI which means the return from one investment can fund the next.”
And that reflects another trend and opportunity. Perfect is the enemy of good. Start small. Start fast. A solution doesn’t have to be perfect so long as it helps you meet your objective. That’s what will let you move from number four in your market to number two, and that’s where productivity and intelligence amplifiers enter the picture. For example, the biggest challenge for call centres is training where staff must learn several different applications before they can answer their first call. “What if you could replace all those applications with just one screen and all the heavy lifting is done by a software agent?” asks Monteith. “It means you can be effective quickly and turn tacit knowledge into explicit workflow. Everyone benefits—especially the consumer.”
It’s already happening. Agent technologies are being used in justice and safety and healthcare, but it’s still early days and the technology is not yet being used to its full potential. “I think in healthcare in particular, the right data in the right person’s hands at that critical moment is the difference between life and death, or the difference between a good experience and a bad experience for the family of a patient,” says Monteith. “The advancement of this type of technology will create a groundswell of a movement towards dramatic improvement in many sectors. It’s an exciting time.”