Some More Thoughts on Human APIsSeptember 25th, 2018 · 27 comments
An Idea Revisited
Last week, I wrote an article exploring the idea of using human APIs to optimize value production in knowledge work organizations. It generated fascinating discussion both in my email inbox and the post comment thread.
To help prod this discussion forward, I thought it might be useful if I try (not necessarily successfully) to respond to a few of the more common concerns I heard about the hAPI concept…
Concern #1: Human APIs would induce stultifying bureaucracy.
The idea of implementing strict routines for professional interaction conjures hellish images of TPS reports and forms filled out in triplicate.
This is a reasonable fear. To create a bureaucracy, however, requires more than just a commitment to systems, but also an obsession with these systems that becomes divorced from the actual objectives of the organization. This requires special circumstances, such as an organization becoming large and slow enough, with sparse enough competition, that it can support ranks of career bureaucrats without promptly going out of business.
It’s perfectly consistent to imagine a firm that embraces the structure of hAPIs, but also maintains an obsessive focus on producing value, dynamically adjusting these protocols as needed whenever they notice undue friction or discover a more effective alternative.
Keep in mind, for example, that the original Ford assembly line was incredibly systematic and rigid as compared to their older method for building cars, but this structure yielded, at least at first, a much more profitable and dynamic company.
Concern #2: Human APIs would kill creativity.
It’s commonly believed that creativity requires free-form discussion and thinking. Accordingly, too much structure around work processes would suppress this spark.
I think this concern is based on an overly-limited vision of hAPIs. One could imagine, for example, an hAPI that includes regular, unstructured, in-person discussions, or provides a clear mechanism for instigating a brainstorming session when inspiration strikes.
Nothing about the hAPI concept requires that communication be restricted to succinct, asynchronous, electronic missives. If anything, the exercise of understanding clearly what type of communication and coordination is most useful, and thinking about how to optimize this behavior, could help creative teams reach a new level of effectiveness.
Concern #3: Human APIs would limit human interaction (making everyone miserable).
Some fear that structuring communication would impede the casual conversation and serendipitous encounters that play a key role in modern organizational life.
To me, however, there’s a clear difference between formalizing standard communication and eliminating casual interaction. An organization that deploys hAPIs could still encourage chatter over coffee and in the lunchroom, or shooting the breeze in a friend’s office to recharge after a hard work session.
Making regular communication more effective doesn’t require that you squash the irregular variety.