As I mentioned in my last post, I was doing work on the frontline with some our staff in JobCentre Plus last week. I was in a disadvantaged area in Scotland, somewhere around Glasgow, and as I said before, the experience was incredibly valuable.
It is so easy to imagine how things will work in production when you’re remote, but you don’t really know how they’re going to work in practice. That’s why (as I said in my last post) you see good people at the frontline who cover over the cracks with manual workarounds, paper based systems, and their own home-built IT.
I mean, let’s face it. No matter how many requirements you gather, no system is going to be perfect for every single user in every single situation. I suppose the art is to get as many use cases that suit as many people as possible whilst minimising the inconvenience you cause to everyone else.
But there was a particular eye-opening, smack in the face, ah-ha moment in the whole week for me. And I know, as I relate it to you, you’re going to say “well, duh!”, especially given the fact that I do work in the trend space as part of my day job.
Here it is: Local knowledge is everything.
There is a particular stage in the present back-to-work regime in the UK that requires people who’ve not worked for about two months to attend a 1 hour group session with a staff member for Job Centre Plus, who explains to them what they’re required to do from a benefits perspective, and who provides a basic refresher on what to do to get a job.
There is a script full of guidance notes on what to say, and you have to be trained specially to give the session.
Anyway, so I sat in on one of these, and got to watch.
The script, had it been given verbatim, would not have provided all that much additional value at all to the attendees, I suspect. But the presenter in my session had detailed local knowledge of who was hiring, who wasn’t, and what facilities were available in the local community to help job-seekers. Questions weren’t answered in generalities: there were specific, do-right-now action points. The local stuff made all the difference, and you could see the attendees going from disinterested, to interested, to pleased they’d attended.
I mean, I don’t know why I was surprised at how valuable locality turned out to be, because we’ve all been talking hyper-local on social sites for a few years. But to see it in action for people suffering the recession: well, it made me recognise the value of all this stuff more than intellectually. I mean, I believed in it before, but now I believe it.
The value of local knowledge is no great revelation I suppose. But it certainly is good to get reminded of the fact that at the edges, small things – like which specific building sites are hiring today - are the most important things.
Now, of course, there is a lesson here for those of us who are responsible for building systems. When we build them, rigidly prescribing every sequence and every transaction, what we tend to do is eliminate the value of locality.
We seek to use systems to impose standards of service and uniformity across the offering. “People are unreliable!”, we scream as we write as much discretion away from users as possible, thinking, as we do so, that we are serving both them and the customers.
Well, we’re not. What we’re actually doing is eliminating those things that would really make what we do thrill customers. At the edge, where people meet real customers, such a standard offering doesn’t thrill anyone. It may provide some value to most people. But I suspect that only outliers would actually be thrilled.
And, yes, I do think it is possible even for job-seekers to be thrilled in their interaction with a government department.
Anyway, the fact of the matter is that people recognise this and find their own ways to generate thrill. That’s why you see all this stuff springing up around the systems, service, and processes that get provided centrally.
Thank you, Jobcentre Plus, for reminding me of something so fundamental as this.