Not long ago, I was on a flight that was delayed. The purser assured all passengers who would miss connecting flights that they would be rebooked and that a gate agent would meet us when we arrived with new itineraries.
Except me. I was a guest of the airline, so they made special arrangements.
Someone rebooked me, and they telexed the new details directly to the cockpit while we were still flying. Only one problem: the new booking was wrong. This anecdote illustrates two fundamental principles: one about data processing and one about business. Data processing consists of defining real-world processes and objects, representing them in a computer, and figuring out how to automate them. Businesses can gain a competitive advantage if they handle things routinely, accurately and efficiently, rather than as time-consuming exceptions.
Customers want to be treated as individuals, with individual needs and characteristics, but they do not want to be treated as exceptions. People want to know that you know how to handle their problems. Once companies have figured out how to solve a new problem routinely, they devote resources to it to develop these procedures. Doing anything out of the ordinary takes management time and attention. Do it routinely and it becomes less expensive and less error-prone. That routine extra care is what distinguishes FedEx, amazon.com, Nordstrom or The Four Seasons from their lesser-known competitors.
But, of course, occasionally real exceptions occur - non-routine problems that cannot be predicted. The computer world is beginning to pay attention to this issue of 'exception-handling' and it is fast becoming the best way for a company to differentiate itself in a world where everything that can be automated has been, and where good ideas can be copied overnight. In short, business has handled most of the routine stuff - now it's time to get busy handling the real problems, the ones where the procedures can't be defined in advance.
A new software product, Groove (www.groove.net) - developed by Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes - is designed to handle non-routine activities by letting small teams of people work together. It creates a virtual workspace where they can share the data and applications they are already using, and communicate by e-mail, voice and file-sharing. Groove acknowledges that unexpected things happen and that you need a way for people to communicate to solve them. At the same time, you need to manage the process seamlessly, with good security among the participants, a record of the communications, and easy access to other systems that hold relevant data.
Although Groove is positioned as a 'peer-to-peer' tool, with all the attendant buzzwords, it is really a tool for handling exceptions. It works as a complement to traditional, routine applications. Once the problem is resolved, it keeps all the ad hoc records together, so they can be referred back to. Could Groove have solved my flight problem? In theory, yes, because I could immediately have pointed out that they had missed the last segment of my original booking. But, in practice, exceptional performance still depends on exceptional people. Give those people the best tools, and then you have a winner.