The More We Automate, the More People Matter

Photograph by Steve Cole/Getty Images

A computer glitch apparently cost Knight Capital Group some $440 million in 45 minutes. Does this mean we’re becoming too dependent on machines and ignoring the need for emergency backup when things go wrong?

The simple answer is, no. We know there are lots of threats out there. We know the advantages and disadvantages of electronic technology. What many companies may be ignoring is the professional development of the people they need to push the button, ring the bell, or pull the plug when things go sour—as they sometimes do, no matter how much we try to prevent it.

A friend, the son of an engineer, whose two brothers also are engineers, tells the following story:

He was approaching an intersection on a busy city street. The stoplight was green, then rapidly changed to yellow and red. It all happened so quickly, his only option was to continue through the intersection.

Several weeks later, he received notice in the mail that he had been caught by one of the city’s spy cameras going through a red light. The fine was $50.

He appealed and took time off from work to attend the midmorning appeal hearing. He explained that the light had malfunctioned. The city engineer then explained how the camera works. They went back and forth—my friend explaining the quick-fire change from green to red; the city engineer explaining the camera’s operational details.

Before my friend left, he told the city engineer and the hearing examiner something his father had told him: “Everything always works just like it’s supposed to work, except when it doesn’t.” They were unmoved, and he was notified weeks later that the fine would stand.

“Everything always works like it’s supposed to, except when it doesn’t” are words we all need to remember and live by.

There are times when things just don’t go the way they’re supposed to. There might be a power outage, a fire, an accident, a computer error, a human error, a storm, a crime, a revolution, a financial meltdown. In the past decade, we’ve seen them all many times.

The discipline of risk management is about recognizing the nearly endless variety of circumstances that might disrupt your business, weighing the likelihood and possible impact of each, establishing backup plans and protocols, and testing and training so you’re ready when something happens.

This requires the right people with the proper training. You can’t afford to get sloppy.

Research has shown conclusively that companies that put a premium on the recruitment, training, and job satisfaction of their employees outperform other companies by a substantial margin.

The lesson here is simple: People matter more than ever. When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, you’ll be glad you made people a priority.