Visibility: an advantage of automation

August 19, 2011

We recently automated our account request system, just in time for the group of new graduate students that happens at the end of every summer. In past years we've handled new graduate students through a manual process; a single person here went through the list, grouped them by supervisor, asked each supervisor to officially confirm sponsoring accounts for their students, re-asked professors who didn't respond, kept track of the answers, asked the approved new graduate students to pick their logins, and so on. This year, the account request system has handled almost all of the work once we got the list of new graduate students (it doesn't automatically re-ask unresponding professors).

One of the surprising things about this change has been how much more visible the state of this process has become to all of us. In the old system everything happened through email, all of which was copied to a tracking alias that everyone was on. This meant that to figure out the status of a request, you generally had to go back through your email archive to reconstruct its state. You can guess how often we even thought of doing this.

(The person doing the work kept track of the current state of everything, and she even told me once where to find the file she used for it and what all the fields meant. Did I remember this the next year? No.)

In the automated system all of this is already tracked in a database, so it was easy to put in support to show the information in various ways. Now it's trivial for any staff member to check into the system and look up, for example, which incoming graduate students have been approved but haven't picked their logins yet; all it takes is glancing at a web page. Because it's so easy, we actually do do it (or at least I do); because I do it, I now know a lot more about how the whole process is going than I did in past years.

This is essentially a necessary consequence of automating the system. For an automated system to work, it needs to be able to determine the current state of everything using its own information; once it can do that, it can tell you about it just as easily as it can use it to do its job. You could say that automation forces you to put information in an easily usable form.

(In the manual system, even an official central place for this information wouldn't have given us quite the same effect because someone would still have had to update it by hand when email came in. The automated system's views are always completely up to date, partly by definition; if it isn't in the system, it's not official.)

Written on 19 August 2011.
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Last modified: Fri Aug 19 01:21:27 2011
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