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Mind of Jacka: Player Piano

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Apr 14, 2022

Mind of Jacka: Player Piano

In my last post, Mind of Jacka: What Would You Say…You Do Here? ( I talked about the need for internal auditors to look closely at the specific tasks they perform with an eye to understanding if those tasks provide any real value. I went on to discuss that, in that analysis, we should be determining if automation could be used to completely eliminate those tasks. An important message within the post was that, if we did not do the analysis ourselves, others might do it for us and, in the process, find we aren't as necessary as we think we are.

If you looked closely, you may have noted some parallels between what was described and the work we already do. For example, the activity of looking for tasks which do not add value is similar to the work we are supposed to be doing with all our operational audits — looking for ways that work can be made more efficient and effective. And the solution for efficiency and effectiveness often comes from automation tools such as bots and RPA.

But there is another, maybe less obvious, parallel. I spoke about the fear of losing our jobs — of being automated out of work. However, do we realize that, in the work we do in the name of efficiency and effectiveness, we might be doing the same to others? Do we think about the ramifications of our making suggestions that may eliminate jobs?

And, as automation takes more of those tasks away and streamlines operations and eliminates the need for human intervention, what might be lost when the humans disappear?

In his first book, "Player Piano," Kurt Vonnegut describes a dystopian future where automation takes on more and more of the work done by humans. At first, this might feel more like utopia than dystopia. However, in this story the corporations have found ways for machines to do almost everything humans do. The inability to be a functioning part of processes that add value has left the population with nothing.

The title of the book refers to a player piano that appears throughout. There are lots of layers and themes within all this that I won't bore you with right now. I'll only note that the player piano represents the replacement of human beings with machines. And that image of the player piano speaks to what internal auditors need to recognize every time we throw in a piece of automation as a solution.

Player pianos have been around since the beginning of the 20th century. Originally controlled by rolls of paper with holes causing certain notes to be played, the newest models are run by computers that perfectly imitate the inflection and touch of a human player. You may have seen these recent models in hotel lobbies or similar locations which desired a certain "atmosphere," the computers working through the instrument to perform a perfect, but ghostly, replication of the human artist.

So, if current technology makes the computer's playing indistinguishable from a human interacting with the piano keys, why do we still have so many people playing pianos and so few player pianos out in the world?

Because it is not the same and, somehow, we can feel a difference.

There is something a human being brings to the task of playing the piano. Part of it is the kinetic motion of the human. Part of it is hearing something different, each new performance adding a nuance (even if only to a single note.) Part of it is the errors and mistakes that make the piece of music alive. Part of it is that a human can react to situations — temperature, ambiance, crowd interaction — that a computer can't handle. And part of it is the intangibleness of what being human is really all about.

And that is what we internal auditors, as we slice and dice our way through processes, must remember. It is easy to streamline and make more efficient and take out the element of human error and ensure everything runs more perfectly, more smoothly, and more successfully. But before you swing that sickle, take a good, hard look at what a human might be adding to that process, task, or step.

There is something a human being brings to every task. And, while it could be that that such humanness is not necessary in every single instance, it is worth taking the time to ensure that something —some special thing — is not being lost when a human is removed from the equation.

I will also add that, in most of the work I've done with process analysis, I have seen enthusiastic participation by those that are a part of the process — by those whose work will be impacted. And that may be a crucial point. Make sure the humans are involved in determining when a human should not be involved anymore.

There is another troubling issue in all this — an important point that was made in Vonnegut's book and something I alluded to earlier. As we cut, slice, and dice, what are the ethical considerations if we are making suggestions that negatively impact the jobs of individuals? In particular, do we need to take responsibility when people are let go?

That is a thorny question, one I'm not going to take on right now. (In fact, you may never see me take it on in these pages.) It is a question that is easy to dismiss — to feel that it isn't our problem. But I think it is a question each of us needs to explore more deeply because it speaks to our own humanity.

I'll leave it to you to determine if the tasks you complete add any value. And I'll leave it to you to ensure that you do not pull the humanity out of work when it is automated. And I'll leave it to you to decide your responsibility to those whose lives you change.

The ball's in your court now.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.

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