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December 15th, 2004

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11:09 am - the medium-sized picture?
There is a phenomena that happens when you teach someone who doesn't like, or doesn't know much about computers how to do something using them, like generate a report or download a dataset. Particularly if then you go through several iterations of people holding that particular job, so that someone with a limited instruction set teaches that set to their replacement. You often end up with someone who knows how to do one particular thing on the system extremely well, but not much about other, related things it is also possible to do with the system.

Case in point: one of the systems I wrangle at work is used to pull together information to build audit case-files. It's actually a batch processing system that talks to a different computer where the actual information is stored/work is done. The case-file contains two main chunks of data that must be queried for; in addition, the method of query for one chunk varies depending on whether the return was filed on paper or electronically.

[I realize this is vague, but it has to be - I like my paycheck, and I'd like to continue collecting it.]

So you've got what has traditionally been three separate queries, at a minimum, for between 50-500 cases, depending. Usually handled by two, if not three separate people, then collated when the cases are built. The person in charge of managing the case-building process is really good about splitting the required information out into the three or four chunks and then collecting all the data back together and disbursing it as needed - no small feat of planning since some of the information requested takes a number of weeks to arrive after it has been requested.

Then someone with a broader knowledge of how computer systems work (that'd be me) comes along, looks at the instructions for the three-four different queries involved, pokes around a bit, and comes to the conclusion that it can all be done at once. Another bonus is it doesn't require anyone to split out the electronic filers vs. the paper filers - I can handle that at the query level.

But here is what I find interesting: the hardest part of the whole business is explaining to people that it's possible to combine the three batch requests into one. Because they're used to thinking of them as three separate, unrelated processes rather than three differing instances of the same process. And my real question is: why/how do I manage to correlate the information I have accreted over the years into some kind of systems view of things when other users don't. Training in observation from my anthropologist days? Excessive curiosity as to how things work, in general and in specific? A tendency to speculate about the shortest possible way of restating the parameters of a situation? I suppose curiosity on my part could subsume most other possible answers, so maybe I'll stick with that.

[See what happens when I finish all my crosswords so I don't have anything to fiddle with during lunch?]

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2004 12:41 pm (UTC)
And my real question is:

Another possible factor: an unusual lack of blind resistance to change.
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2004 01:24 pm (UTC)
It sounds to me like what you have is an understanding of databases and how to mine them for information. You might or might not be happy to know that even at Microsoft, there were people who didn't understand how to set up databases and query them, and often put into separate processes things that could be more easily done once.
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2004 06:33 pm (UTC)
I've been having related thoughts about my abilities to see (and explain) the entire scope of a process instead of just chunks of it.

While in training for my current temp position, I entertained the thought that the employee training me was setting me up to fail, because this person was training me so poorly that I had difficulty understanding what was going on, minute to minute. I came to realize that I needed more "why"-type explanations than I was given, and said unnamed person was just shoving me through the motions, without ever explaining the purpose or meaning of the tasks performed.

I've also been documenting every single procedure, partially for my own benefit, and partially for the department's, since they have very few cohesive procedures put together. So why is it that I can explain from the beginning to the end how something works, when most people can only understand their small little chunk of the world? How can you operate without at least knowing about the whole pie???

To me, these are similar and related questions.

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