I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Shadow Work

Last month, Rana Foroohar argued in the FT that worker productivity is declining in no small part because of shadow work. Shadow work is unpaid work done in an economy. Historically, this referred to things like parenting and cleaning the house. The definition has expanded in recent years to include tasks that used to be done by other people that most of us now do for ourselves, largely through self-service technology, like banking and travel booking. There are no objective measures of how much shadow work there is in an economy, but the allegation in the FT article is that it is on the rise, largely because of all the fixing and correcting that the individual now must do on their own behalf.

There is a lot of truth to this. Some of the incremental shadow work is trivial, such as having to update profile information when an employer changes travel app provider. Some is tedious, such as when people must patiently hurdle through the unhelpful layers of primitive chat bots to finally reach a knowledge worker to speak to. Some is time consuming, such as when caught in an irrops travel situation and needing to rebook travel. And some is truly absurd, such as spending months navigating insurance companies and health care providers to get a medical claim paid. Although customer self-service flatters a service provider’s income statement, it wreaks havoc on the customer’s productivity and personal time.

But it is unfair to say that automated customer service has been a boon to business and a burden to the customer. Banking was more laborious and inconvenient for the customer when it could only be performed at a branch on the bank’s time. And it could take several rounds - and days - to get every last detail of one’s travel itinerary right when booking a business trip through a travel agent. Self-service has made things not just better, but far less labor intensive for the ultimate customer.

It is more accurate to say that any increase in shadow work borne by the customer is not really a phenomenon of the shift to customer self-service as much as it lays bare the shortcomings of providers that a large staff of knowledgable customer service agents were able to gloss over.

First, a lot of companies force their customers to do business with them in the way the company operates, not in the way the customer prefers to do business. A retailer that requires its customers to put an order on a specific location rather than algorithmically routing the order for optimal fulfillment to the customer - e.g., for best availability, shortest time to arrival, lowest cost of transportation - forces the customer to navigate the company’s complexity in order to do business. Companies do this kind of thing all the time because they simply can’t imagine any other way of working.

Second, edge cases defy automation. Businesses with exposure to a lot of edge cases or an intolerance to them will shift burden to customers when they arise. The travel industry is highly vulnerable to weather and suffers greatly with extreme weather events. Airline apps have come a long way since they made their debut 15 years ago, but when weather disrupts air travel, the queues at customer service desks and phone lines get congested because there is a limit to the solutions that can be offered through an app.

Third, even the simplest of businesses in the most routine of industries frequently manage customer service as a cost to be avoided, if not outright blocked. A call center that is managed to minimize average call time as opposed to time to resolution is incentivized to direct the caller somewhere else or deflect them entirely rather than resolve the customer problem. No amount of self-service technology will compensate for a company ethos that treats the customer as the problem.

There is no doubt that shadow work has increased, but that increase has less to do with the proliferation of customer self-service and more to do with the limitations of its implementation and the provider’s attitude toward their customer.

Perhaps more important is what a company loses when it reduces the customer service it provides through its people: the inability to immediately respond humanely to a customer in need; the aggregate loss of customer empathy through a loss of contact. This makes it far more difficult for a company to nurture its next generation of knowledge workers to troubleshoot and resolve increasingly complex customer service situations.

But of greater concern is that as useful as automation is from a convenience and scale perspective, its proliferation drives home the point that customers are increasingly something to be harvested, not people with whom to establish relationships. Society loses something when services are proctored at machine rather than human scale. In this light, the erosion of individual productivity is relatively minor.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023


I recently came across a box of very old technology tucked away in my basement: PDAs, mobile phones, digital cameras and even a couple of old laptops, all over two decades old. It was an interesting find, if slightly disturbing to think this stuff has moved house a couple of times. Before disposing of something, I try to repurpose it if I can. That's hard to do with electronics once they're orphaned by their manufacturers. Still, electronics recycling wasn't as easy to do twenty years ago, so perhaps just as well that I held onto them until long after it was.

In addition to bringing back fond memories, finding this trove got me thinking about about how rapidly mobile computing evolved. In the box from the basement were a couple of PDAs, one each by HP and Compaq; phones by Motorola, Nokia (including a 9210 Communicator) and Ericcson; and a digital video recorder by Canon. The Compaq brand has all but disappeared; the makers of two of the three phones exited the mobile phone business years ago; the Mini-DV technology of the camcorder was obsolete within a few years of its manufacture.

There were also a couple of laptops in the box, one each made by Compaq and Sony. The interesting thing about the laptops is how little the form factor has changed. My first laptop was a Zenith SuperSport 286. The basic design of the laptop computer hasn't changed much since the late 1980s (although mercifully they weigh less than 17 lbs). The Compaq and Sony laptops in that box from the basement are not physically different from the laptops of today: the Sony had a square screen and lots of different ports, where a modern laptop has a rectangular screen and a few USB ports.

The laptop, of course, replaced the luggable computer of the 1970s and early 1980s made by the likes of Osborne and Kaypro and Compaq. The luggable was a statement for the era: what compels a person to haul around disk drives, CPU, keyboard and a small CRT? Maybe it was the free upper-body workout. The laptop was a quantum improvement in mobile computing.

But once that quantum improvement happened, the laptop became decidedly less exciting. As the rate of change of capabilities in the laptop slowed, getting a new laptop became less of an event and more of a pain in the ass. Not to mention that, just like the PDA and phone manufacturers mentioned above, the pioneers and early innovators didn’t survive long enough to reap the full benefits of the space maturing.

And the same phenomenon happened in the PDA/Phone/camera space. The quantum leap was when these converged with the original iPhone. Since then, a new phone has become less and less of an event. Yes, just like laptops, they get incrementally better. Fortunately, migration via cloud makes upgrading less of a pain in the ass.

The transition from exciting to ordinary correlates to the utility value of technology in our lives: in personal productivity, entertainment, and increasingly as the primary (if not only) channel for doing things. There are, of course, several transformative technologies in their nascent stages. Somehow, I don’t think any are spawning the Zenith Data Systems and Compaqs making a future relic that somebody someday will be slightly amused to find in a box in their basement.