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Volume 32, Issue 1

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The focus of preparation for the arrival of the Millenium Bug has been on technology. It is, after all, a technology problem. COBOL programmers have been called out of retirement, hardware and software have been replaced or upgraded, suppliers have been pushed to guarantee their products and services, and panic has emerged at the thought of embedded chips in critical systems being overlooked. As the millennium "hot dates" approach, however, the realization has dawned that technological fixes will not be enough to handle the crisis. Once again, we must depend upon people to ensure that the fabric of our economy is not torn apart by the possibility of widespread failure of business and government organizations.

For it is people that must perform the non-automated procedures that will keep an organization going in the event of system failure. These people will be performing under significant stress. Will they have the skills to work effectively with others under stress? Will they be able to focus and communicate in order to ensure the kind of collaboration necessary to be successful? There is a lot at stake and we must be ready. Here are some ideas about how to be prepared.
Secondary Processes

Most automated (primary) processes that are vulnerable to the Y2K Bug probably were done manually at some time in the past. The old manual (secondary) process might be resurrected if automated machinery fails, but it is unlikely that anyone is around that knows the secondary process. That knowledge has probably been lost through attrition, reengineering, or downsizing. For example, banks and mortgage companies used to do item processing without automation and process loans without servers and databases, but that was some time ago and the work force that had knowledge of the secondary process has probably moved on. There are numerous examples like this in today’s organizations of how primary work processes have been replaced with faster, cheaper, more accurate automation.

As new work in new industries emerges, the expectation is that technology will certainly be a part of the primary work design. It is a part of working smart to automate whenever possible. The pace of life and business demands it. The potential failure of technology, however, demands that organizations become prepared to stay in business with more labor- intensive secondary processes until the technology can be recovered.

The people who understand what the automated process achieves must design the secondary processes. It is not important for them to know how the technology works, but it is necessary to know what inputs and resources are required to produce the desired output of the process. This knowledge will enable them to design a secondary process that will keep the business going if technology fails. In fact, it is an essential element of knowledge management that process knowledge be captured and made available for transfer when needed.

The development of such secondary processes supports an overall knowledge management strategy by documenting the essentials of critical business processes. Of course, it is easy to see that the capture of this knowledge and the design of secondary processes will call for people to work together well. Unfortunately, managers cannot assume that people will collaborate effectively. They must ensure that workers learn about working under stress without automation.

Plans, Links, Information & Learning

Working effectively at non-automated processes under stress requires four skill sets and a way to keep them in balance. The first skill is in having a clear purpose or plan for where you want to go. The second is having strong links to the people who can help you get there. Then you need to work with clean, accurate information so that your decisions are sound, and you need to be able to learn quickly what’s working and what’s not, as you go along. The skill that keeps these elements in balance is the way you make requests and agreements with your fellow workers and customers.

While these may seem obvious in the abstract, the reality is that under stress, most of us resort to less effective tools – our default positions. For example, we get frustrated that what’s clear to us isn’t equally obvious to everyone else, or we get caught up in the details and fail to see the big picture, or we’re abrupt and demanding because our fear levels are high. Thus, we contribute to the stress in the situation, rather than lowering it. Hardly the way to build the collaborative spirit we will all need to make sure the costs of Y2K are minimized!

It takes time and practice to get to the point where those positive approaches can hold up under stressful conditions. And it takes time to build the kinds of strong relationships that hold up, even when we can’t function at our best. Readiness for Y2K is going to require both well-thought-out secondary processes and strong people skills to implement them if needed. For example: If you lose the ability to perform order-taking functions electronically, those orders must be taken manually. Not only do the people who do that work have to figure out a paper trail that insures that relevant information gets every where it needs to, they are also going to have to work harder to keep good colleague and customer relations when everything has slowed down. It is especially important that clear requests are made and solid agreements negotiated. If they haven’t prepared the paper trail and haven’t prepared for the people issues that may arise, are they really ready for Y2K?


Prudent planners will recognize that Y2K readiness is not simply a technology question, but intimately involves people. It involves the development of secondary work processes to supplant those primary automated processes upon which the organization depends for its survival. Despite the uniqueness of every organization and individual, this overall strategy of secondary process design and relationship skill development will provide a crucial extra measure of insurance against the Y2K contingency across the board, so that response is appropriate and recovery is swift. Your final Y2K preparation needs to start now to build the needed knowledge and relationship base. Our communities, our organizations, and our jobs depend upon it.

Lisa Marshall is Sr. Vice President with SYNTAX Communication Modeling Corporation, focusing on collaboration, change management, leadership development, and team building. She was an educational and documentary film-maker for twelve years. She is the co-author of Smart Work: The Syntax Guide for Mutual Understanding in the Workplace (Kendall/Hunt, 1995)

Don Saracco is Vice President with MLC & Associates, Inc., a business consulting firm specializing in strategic contingency planning, work process analysis, and performance improvement. He has more than 25 years experience in organizational development and is a doctoral candidate in Human Performance Technology at the University of Southern California.