Are You Auto-Piloting Your Company Into a Disaster?

by Larry Barrett | 9/19/14

At the time I was gunning my Honda through a crowded grocery store parking lot last weekend with rage in my heart and some vague notion of instant retribution on my reptilian mind, it didn’t occur to me until hours later that technology – for all its utility and purported benefits – was directly responsible for the ensuing exchange of expletives between two middle-aged strangers from the safety of our respective four-wheeled weapons.

But it was.

Now this story – this time at least – doesn’t end with a crowbar embedded in somebody’s skull and a pair of fresh bodies winding their way through either the criminal justice system or the local funeral parlor. Bad words were exchanged. Grievances were aired. Adrenaline flowed. We drove off in opposite directions, each convinced that the other was the worst person on the planet.

This was no “second-screen experience,” as the new-age marketing gurus would say. This was an in-your-face, heat-of-the-moment situation birthed out of thin air that’s roughly analogous for so many frustrating interactions between customers and businesses that happen every day – save the honking, but not the cussing. There was nothing virtual or cloud-based about it.

And whether you’re a managed service provider or a dealer or an OEM or a customer, understanding the limitations of technology — especially the limitations of the people working for and with you — will mean everything as society continues its relentless, inevitable and dare I say treacherous march toward automated nirvana.

I’ll come back to this correlation in the bit. But first, back to the parking lot.

I was pulling through the lot looking for a parking space and that selfish jerk was backing out of a spot up ahead to the right a bit. We’ve all been in this situation a million times. I was driving at a very normal, slow, conservative speed because I’m always extraordinarily safe and my soul is nothing but pure. I was holding my smartphone in one hand, but that’s neither here nor there. I know what I’m doing.

This gentleman, however, either wasn’t using his mirrors or looking over his shoulder as he proceeded to back up. Now, I saw him in plenty of time. I knew that I was going to be easily clear of his reckless voyage. And I was. I pulled into an open spot a good 15 or 20 feet away and Mr. Magoo didn’t have to brake or decelerate at all. But that didn’t stop him from honking his horn a good three or four times BEFORE he completed his retreat from the parking space. (Side note: Can you ever be in the right if you’re honking while you’re in reverse? Just a thought.)

Either way, it was a non-issue. No collision. No wear and tear on the brake pads. No emergency evasive actions were required. I was safely parked and he had backed out of his spot, free and clear to head home to re-watch “13 Hours At Benghazi.” And I was pretty much convinced that the honking must have been directed at some other real or imagined miscreant until the Pope of the Parking Lot pulled up behind me, stopped, and flexed his horn muscles a couple more times before he tried to slink away into anonymity.

He was literally trolling me in the parking lot. But life isn’t the “Comments” section at the bottom of a poorly written Yahoo news story. I put my car in reverse and tracked him down.

The ‘soft costs’ of automation, unrealistic expectations

Now if Google and other self-driving car pioneers have their way, maybe situations like this will be nothing more than a tragic footnote in history — you know, sort of like how people in bonnets and dusters used to get trampled to death by runaway stagecoaches back in Dodge City. This is our future. Self-driving cars, according to the research and advisory firm Lux Research, are expected to be an $87 billion business by 2030. To this I say, give me the stagecoaches.

Why not automate personal transportation? We have or we’re trying to automate everything else, the Silicon Valley crowd says. Industries, including yours, have increasingly turned to remote monitoring systems to identify problems with devices of all stripes and colors in the name of improving efficiency and reducing costs and redundancy. CRM systems have turned the art of selling into a binary exercise that allows sales reps to “manage” accounts, prompting them to remember the buying decision-makers’ birthdays or accessing a handy alert telling them that, yes, in fact, it has been 36 days since you’ve made contact with your customer.

But can your employees still sell? I mean really sell – not just send out slightly modified (“Dear Bill/Brenda/Britknee …”), boilerplate emails or incessant tweets designed to funnel your clients and would-be customers to a website where your catalogue of products and services are stored and managed in the cloud and customized for consumption on their mobile devices. You’ll find out the next time the power goes out or a cell tower goes down or gets slammed to the point of capitulation.

More to the point, are our expectations as consumers, with our iPhones and our Dropbox and our Instagram and Twitter accounts, raising our expectations of instantaneous satisfaction and information, making it all but impossible for businesses to do anything OTHER than manage all these tools of automation? And is this mindset bleeding over into everything we’re doing away from the office, like in the parking lot of a grocery store on a Saturday afternoon where two strangers both want to do what they want to do precisely when they want to do it, universe be damned?

Human beings are limited creatures. We’re generally pretty good. Some are much better than others, especially as it pertains to multitasking or absorbing an enormous amount of information, processing it and then acting on it to generate a new sales lead or identify a wonky process that’s screwing up your accounts payable and receivable workflow. But could it be we’re all relying so much on our ability to manage the automation that we’ve lost our aptitude to effectively do the work that we’ve so successfully automated, the stuff that actually matters?

Because sometimes, it really matters.

Virtual benefits, real consequences

Twenty years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board took a close look at 37 major airline accidents ( between 1978 and 1990 and found that 31 of those disasters were partly or mostly the result of pilots failing to properly monitor the automated controls that were keeping their planes in the air. Remember the Asiana Airlines flight last July that inexplicably came up short on its final approach and bounced down the runway in San Francisco?

In other words, freed of the responsibility to manually fly their aircrafts, a startling number of pilots were not paying adequate attention to the critical systems that were keeping their planes aloft. And people died because of it.

One of the main reasons pilots were failing to diligently and accurately monitor and respond to their automated tools, according to a great read from The New Yorker, was boredom. The bottom line: automation for the aviation industry did not reduce human error – it just created new types of tragic human mistakes.

That was 20 years ago. How much more automation has occurred in the airline industry in the past two decades? How many more business-critical processes have been automated at your company and within your industry, hell, within your whole life over this same period?

Now go to the Wikipedia page for the autonomous car and scan down to the alleged “potential advantages” of these self-driving vehicles. Just below the promise of fewer collisions and reduced traffic congestion you’ll find “relief of vehicle occupants from driving and navigation chores.”

Maybe we could all stand for a little less relief from our responsibilities.


Larry Barrett is a freelance journalist and blogger who has covered the information technology and business sectors for more than 15 years. Most recently, he served as the online news editor for 1105 Media’s Office Technology Group and as the online managing editor for SourceMedia’s Investment Advisory Group publications Financial Planning, On Wall Street and Bank Investment Consultant. He was also a senior writer and editor at Ziff Davis Media’s Baseline Magazine, winner of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award, and ZDNet. In addition, he’s served as a senior writer and editor at prominent technology and business websites including CNET,, Multichannel News and the San Jose Business Journal.

is an editor and analyst at BPO Media.