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Digital Publishers: Beware the Mechanical Turk!

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  • By Garrett Houghton
  • 10.2.2018

There’s an adage in the startup world to “do things that don’t scale.” I definitely subscribe to this ethos. But not always. And especially not in organizations that have the resources to afford themselves relief from the pain of doing things that don’t scale.

But, in many digital media companies, especially those that have risen from startup beginnings, “doing things that don’t scale” can become an entrenched way of thinking that’s difficult to change. And if these manual processes are not automated or removed, it can lead to teams full of Mechanical Turks.

An MT is anyone that makes a business process function by performing a series of tasks that can appear to be automated, efficient or streamlined. MT functions are often ignored, reluctantly accepted, or in the worse cases, built into a business process. And therein lies the insidious contradiction. A “functional” process powered by MTs is an illusion.

And where do we see this manifest in digital media companies? It can be:

  • The Ad Ops Person that manually reconciles delivery data from 5+ ad servers every month to ensure revenue is attributed correctly to ad campaigns
  • The Account Manager that creates a media plan in an Order Management System, only to export that media plan and rekey all the data into dozens of agency, Excel-based templates
  • The Revenue Analyst that pulls data from disparate systems into Excel, combines it all together via 20 pivot tables, hoping the Frankensteinian forecast adds up
  • The Sales Person that copies and pastes information from an RFP into various internal systems to ensure everyone on their team is looking at the same data

MTs keep the business moving forward, silently performing redundant, manual tasks at the expense of more strategic work. But why is it difficult to automate these tasks? There’s a whole host of reasons, ranging from the rapid pace of change in the media industry (e.g. GDPR, new distribution channels, etc.) to siloed business software to customer demands.

And these hurdles often lead to a reluctant acceptance that “this is how this industry works.” But to ignore or accept the various MT functions in your company is to condemn yourself to pockets of unsatisfied employees who might look to constantly shift roles, or worse, leave, not due to poor fit, but because of the desire to take on more inspiring work.

So how can you reduce the need for MTs?

  • Map out your operational processes. Look for the areas where you’re asking someone to input data, send an alert or perform another administrative action. These are the areas and functions that create MTs.
  • Understand the cost of these MT processes. What is the current margin of error of these processes? How much will this cost to automate? How much will this cost not to automate? This data can help you prioritize what to fix first.
  • Interview your MTs and understand their pain points. If you can understand what percentage of their time is spent doing administrative, redundant tasks, you can begin to hone in on who needs the most help.

Once you’ve collected this data, you can start to outline how to streamline, and hopefully, remove unnecessary process. Do you need to capture that data point in your CRM and your project management software? Will you ever really report on it? If you hesitate to answer these questions with a definitive yes, than you might need to reevaluate.

It’s easy to throw the term automation around. It deserves a place on the shelf next to other nebulous words like synergy, strategy and “Special Sauce.” But if you start with evaluating your MTs, you’ll be able to develop targeted automation that will truly provide a high return on investment, reduce error and free your team to be more strategic.

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