The Enemy Is Us

On the Internet, latency is a big deal. The amount of time you have to wait for a response to a request you tap onto your keyboard goes a long way toward determining how satisfied you are as an Internet user.

On the Internet, latency is a big deal. The amount of time you have to wait for a response to a request you tap onto your keyboard goes a long way toward determining how satisfied you are as an Internet user. Broadband connections may be dimming our recollection of the days when Net access was described as the World Wide Wait. But its still a practical issue. If you cant get the information, ser-vice or entertainment you want when you want it, youll abandon the medium. Maybe just for the moment, maybe just for a day or maybe forever.

For consumers, the wait amounts to a technical problem. The pipe carrying the data may be so narrow that it takes a long time for the answer to dribble through. Or, the servers may be overloaded, obstructing additional requests for information.

For businesses, however, network delays are not so much technical problems as people problems. When it comes to eliminating bottlenecks, "human latency is frequently the culprit, says Rob Lamb, director of IBMs WebSphere Integration Business.

Simply translated, this means that somewhere along the way, in the normal conduct of business, a human gets in the way. Instead of a smooth, completely electronic exchange of information and instruction, theres a handoff to a person. That handoff — usually for a menial task — is the progenitor of the businesswide wait.

Example: A company sets up a system for employees to order new laptops for themselves.

The grand procurement system can allow for almost any company policy in making this program work. The systems coded innards enable any individual employee to buy a laptop once every 36 months. Each employee has a spending cap, depending his or her rank and job requirements. Software required by the company is added automatically to the purchase invoice. Delivery terms are preset. The user can specify the delivery date.


Because, after all this effort to remove the effort from a relatively routine task, a human being may still have to execute the transaction.

All too often, Lamb says, the purchase order goes to a central data processing organization where someone actually prints out the order specifications and faxes them to a supplier. Or calls them in. Either way, the chain is broken. Human intervention becomes a fact of life. If the employee wants to see what happened to the order, he or she will first have to find the person who placed the order, then get that person to find the transaction log. The person will have to call the supplier, and, often, the employee will have to call the person again to learn the orders status.

Fairly inefficient, for this era when nearly any support service in a company ought to be automated. Manufacturing lines are constantly reassessed for the latest processes to automate. Why is there such reluctance to do so in the office?

The intellectual part of a business — whether its designing the manufacturing process or factory, collaborating on an improvement to the product being built or working through the steps of a service to be delivered — still needs original thought. Its too early to start thinking of an automobile or airplane that is wholly designed, much less built, tested and deployed, by machine rather than mammon.

But this is a nation of workers who know how to manage their bank accounts by machine, research a project using online resources and decipher impenetrable handheld remote controls to take a break from the stress of work. It is retrograde to think these same folks cant effectively use the terminal at their desks to make everyday purchases that let them do their jobs, make travel arrangements, file expenses and turn in performance reports.

The latency in this case is, as Lamb might point out, human. But its latency of a different nature.

Wringing out human latency takes effort. And that, all too often, takes time — waiting for someone to do it.

Tom Steinert-Threlkeld is Vice President of Ziff Davis Medias Business Media Group and a former Editor-in-Chief at Interactive Week. He can be reached at