Does Anyone Want a "Decision Factory"?

  • October 23, 2013
  • Scott

Keith Swenson’s blog recently responded to a Harvard Business Review article, entitled “Rethinking the Decision Factory“, where he undercuts some of the key points raised in HBR.

There are lots of bones to pick with the thesis behind knowledge workers as factory workers, but here’s the part from Keith’s blog that spoke to me:

He describes these decision makers as simply consuming data and produce decisions, regardless of whether it is their data or someone else’s data. This completely ignores the element of tacit expertise.  Many knowledge workers provide value only after a significant investment in understanding a particular market or audience.  This over simplified portrayal of a knowledge worker as a interchangeable automaton seems far too convenient and ignores the real nature of (much) knowledge work.

So, knowledge workers are just computers that take inputs, and produce decisions (outputs)?  That’s just crazy.  A knowledgeable person brings all their work history and context with them. They bring their previous expertise in the knowledge domain to the table.  A judge doesn’t preside over just any case – first of all, they experts in the law, but secondly they specialize in terms of the kinds of cases they hear.  The key skill for a judge likely isn’t the decision-making, but the ability to manage the process of meting out justice and running cases through hearings.

Your employees and teammates are not automatons and they’re not highly replaceable.  If they were, you could do as follows:

Given that external consulting companies exist, it seems far more likely that the company would forego the pool altogether.  If knowledge workers are as interchangeable as Martin suggests, then why not bring them in from Accenture or McKinsey when needed.  That way, when the project is over, there is no need to keep them on the payroll, and you can pull from a potentially larger pool.

So who wants to outsource decisioning to an outside consulting firm?  Right.

My first thought was, whenever someone tries to make knowledge work or specialized skilled work a “factory” you have to wonder who they’re trying to exploit (or justify exploiting). Keith’s blog is a pretty convincing challenge to the assumptions behind the HBR article.


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  • KDS

    Excellent summary of the key points. I have a follow-on post today with quotes from management gurus that shows the contrast between leading people, and attempting to automate them.

    • I just wouldn’t equate automation of “people” with BPM. you seem to do that in your second post, and that’s the part I think you’re missing – to the extent that BPM is about automating, it isn’t automating people, it is automating the mundane. If anything, leaving more time for leadership.

      • KDS

        I think you have a very mature understanding of what BPM is good for, but there is so much literature and so many experts driving people toward the miss-use of BPM to automate people. It starts with the BPMN specification itself. The very second example process (figure 7.2) is a process between a “doctor” and a “patient” which is a most unrealistic example, and it is used many more times through the spec. OMG has a “BPMN by Example” document ( and the first example is for three people in a hardware store, the second is a pizza customer and restaurant, All of these are examples of “automation of people with BPM”. I don’t think you or I would do this, but there are a lot of “experts” selling people this story.

        • Keith – fair points regarding the “expert advice” out there. Of course, I’m sure the justification the OMG and document authors would give is just that they were looking for simple-to-understand examples (like doctor-patient, or pizza-delivery).

          Not unlike how people do the “hello world” example in programming languages, though obviously it isn’t the “right use” of the software.

          Having said that, those aren’t the only examples of bad advice from “the experts” 🙂