Technology

Do Your Tools Have Too Many Knobs?

By / Dec 19, 2017 (Toltek/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

If it feels like you’re relying a little too heavily on “life hacks” to get through your day, it may be a sign that your organization’s infrastructure isn’t properly optimized for the needs of employees or members. Read on to learn how one organization is solving the problem for itself.

As the door closes on another year as a writer for Associations Now (five full years! and change!), I find myself in a position where I’m constantly trying to peel away seconds from my day.

Some of my tricks are small—replacing lots of copying and pasting with key commands or trackpad gestures—while other tricks are more dramatic. (I highlighted a few here.)

Recently, I noticed that Getty Images got a Dropbox integration, and I used that in tandem with the automation tool Zapier to automatically add the pictures to WordPress, a process that won’t work every time but potentially allows me to make the photo-editing process a little bit less painful. This is great for me, personally—but by no means scalable in its current form.

In many cases, process can add unnecessary time and stress to a given day—and though these kinds of “life hacks” can help ease the process, they are by no means sustainable.

And this isn’t just limited to content management and editing, like I do on a given day. This leads to every part of your organizational process, from running your organization’s website to maintaining your member lists.

There are times when busywork is involved that can prove stressful or even overwrought; where it’s work for the sake of work and not work that you’re proud of. And associations are far from the only sector dealing with this problem: The medical industry, thanks to a regulatory push toward using electronic health records, has become an outright hub of busywork, sadly.

The Root Causes of Busywork

What causes busywork within an organization, really? If I had to nail it down to one thing, I might say it has a lot to do with monoliths—massive tools that do a lot of things but aren’t optimized for an organization’s own needs.

Here’s one example that many organizations struggle with: time and expense tracking. If your employees are having to type everything out by hand just to track it, something’s wrong with your process, and it’s probably a good idea to look at alternatives that simplify it as much as possible—say, something that makes it easy to track things with your phone.

This can be broadened out to all sorts of tools that do more than you need, including your database tools, your email platforms, and even your content management systems. If your tools are built with a thousand options, but you only use four, figure out a way to turn off or hide away those extra knobs!

Hiding the Knobs From View

An example of what it means to “hide extra knobs” emerged during a Tuesday session at ASAE’s Technology Conference & Exposition last week. In a session on abandoning technology, two officials from the American Institute of Architects’ product strategy group—vice president Jeffrey Raymond and senior director Brian McLaren—explained how AIA threw out a number of outdated systems in favor of a more modern and less cruft-laden approach.

“We’re an agile house now, our team is, and abandoning a technology is key to being agile,” Raymond explained during the session. “If you’re holding onto something because it’s a sunk cost, or because it’s been there forever, or because someone is infinitely in love with in for some reason, it’s gonna prevent you from being responsive to the environment that you’re in.”

The flip side of this is that, by throwing out all these tools that didn’t speak to a larger strategic goal, they were instead able to decide upon tools specific to the organization’s own needs—those that work really well but aren’t super knob-laden.

“We pick a system because it’s really good at what we need it to do. It doesn’t do everything under the sun, but what we need it to do, it does really, really well, and it usually is a really simple system,” Raymond added.

Taken together, what AIA has built is a platform with open-source architecture, one built around a headless infrastructure—the very same kind of infrastructure I highlighted as an important trend earlier this year.

In other words, AIA has been able to take a plethora of complex, disparate interfaces and put their own custom front end around them, something that helps to ensure this complex array of tools the association has built or purchased for itself will ultimately meet its broader needs.

If there’s a portion of one tool they want to show their users, they can do so through the front-end interface. It wasn’t cheap—AIA spoke of making a significant investment in the open-source community by offering numerous contributions to the front-end tool Cardstack, which is effectively the “head” of their headless infrastructure. In the long run, the approach will give AIA a lot of flexibility it may not have had with an array of siloed tools that all work differently.

Build for the Future

Maybe this sounds like a lot of work to spend all this time building out interfaces meant to make the daily grind a little easier for the organization and its members, but this is all future-proofing. In five years, AIA will be able to take this infrastructure in so many different directions, that it’ll make your head spin. And it’ll be easier as time goes on.

There was a time, long before many of us were born, when using a computer meant an array of complex knobs. There’s a reason you will find few, if any, buttons on a smartphone these days.

When it comes to your own internal tools, what buttons can you get rid of?

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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