The human-machine duo: Productive … and positive?

AnneMarie Taravella
(Language Update, Volume 10, Number 2, Summer 2013)

This article discusses some of the topics explored in a speech I gave in September 2012 for the Language Technologies Research Centre, in Gatineau. I propose a positive methodological and theoretical framework for studying language technology tools and a positive conceptual scheme in favour of organizational performance. These proposals are still being developed, however, and will need to evolve and be refined as my doctoral research progresses.

It takes two to tango

When I first formulated my doctoral research subject, for my request for financial assistance from funding bodies, I spontaneously used symmetrical concepts: "The translator and the machine: human and technological aspects of translation process re-engineering in Canadian organizations."Footnote 1 However, what I had in mind was not opposing forces—the translator battling against the machine—but the tango, an activity that takes two and that could, I hoped, be mutually beneficial.

I intuitively thought that the evolution of language technologies informed the evolution of translation work and that if translation processes in organizations were adapted to make use of tools and, conversely, if tools were designed to suit the specific needs of translation work, it would be possible to maximize both the well-being of users and the overall, not just financial, performance of businesses. This point of view can be summarized as follows, in the words of A. O. Villeneuve, Professor, Department of Information Systems and Quantitative Management Methods, Faculty of Administration, University of Sherbrooke:

[Translation] Just as the hammer is an extension of the carpenter’s arm when the carpenter is skilled at hammering, language information systems and translation tools can, we believe, become a natural extension of the abilities and skills of language professionals. It takes time for the carpenter to master the tool; a learning process is involved, and during this stage, fears will be high—fears of injury, of missing the mark…. Stress will also be a factor, owing to a lack of skill at using the tool of course, but also owing to pressure to meet deadlines. As the carpenter acquires experience and skill, the hammer is no longer an exogenous factor; it assumes its role as an endogenous factor in the system; it becomes assimilated into the carpenter. In light of this, theory must therefore reposition the human and the tool in the same dimension, in the same unit of production. In fact, we could even argue that the hammer is no longer distinct from the carpenter who wields it; the two form a whole.Footnote 2

This view may seem naive at first. However, the way in which change is approached is one of the factors that determine success in adapting to change. Yet many of the themes and concepts in the literature on implementation of information technologies or on the evolution of the translation market are negative. I propose a resolutely positive conceptual scheme for studying the integration of automated translation tools into the daily work of language professionals.

Positive organizational scholarship

Many of the major concepts being researched or debated in both fields that interest us—information systems or information technologies (IT) and the language industry—are studied from a negative perspective. Therefore, in IT research, resistance to change is generally referred to as something that needs to be combatted. Even though, in an article in 2010, Céline Bareil, Associate Professor at HEC Montréal, encourages managers to "positively capitalize on"Footnote 3 concerns expressed by workers at the beginning of a change initiative in order to respond appropriately before their concerns transform into active resistance, the vocabulary used to describe the purpose of this positive capitalization remains negative in general. Many authors are interested in the concept of IT anxiety, which, [Translation] "as one can easily imagine, could lead to a form of discouragement or even demotivation in those who have to use IT in their work."Footnote 4 Furthermore, a significant part of management research is dedicated to managing IT project costs, which are usually considered too high. Is this because the costs are rarely weighed against the benefits reaped from IT projects? It’s probable that in many cases, the net balance would be a gain. The hard part is measuring the gain, which should take into account not just financial considerations, but also the significant human component. As for the language industry, it is often referenced in order to highlight its lack of resources, the loss of specialized knowledge that could result from a gap in the age pyramid of language professionals, the intensification of competition, or a possible loss of quality in the event of production process changes or lower rates. These concepts are relevant and are fortunately being looked at by research and the media. However, in studying how language professionals use IT, we hope to adopt a deliberately positive approach.

I’m not suggesting that only negative themes and concepts are addressed in this area. Collaboration and innovation (e.g. Brunette and GagnonFootnote 5) and even productivity gains (e.g. Zapata RojasFootnote 6 and PwCFootnote 7) are also at the heart of the discussion regarding the language industry. I want to highlight the importance given to certain negative concepts, in order to propose the opposite point of view. As indicated by a 3M administrator quoted in a case study by Sajan, a provider of translation services and software solutions, it is often thought that "with translations, there are a lot of things that can go wrong…."Footnote 8 However, nothing prevents us from adopting the attitude that there are a lot of things that turn out very well.

I therefore began looking for a framework that would allow me to focus on the thirst for change, rather than resistance, on the well-being of users, rather than stress at work, on being creative and enjoying one’s work. Positive organizational scholarship was one of the avenues that opened up to me.

Positive organizational scholarship is a movement founded in 2011 in the organizational sciences, by Kim Cameron, Jane Dutton and Robert E. Quinn, who are presently professors at the University of Michigan (Stephen M. Ross School of Business). "[P]ositive organizational scholarship examines the positive side of organizational performance" and is inspired by positive psychology and classic organizational theory.Footnote 9 The definition that Dutton provides indicates that positive organizing refers to the organizational dynamics that enable individuals, groups and organizations to flourish. Positive organizational scholarship is far from being utopian or disregarding the commercial nature of the organizations it looks at; in fact, it reconciles the financial performance objective of organizations with the objective of promoting the well-being of stakeholders, which is important to my research: "It is about making money and it is about creating contexts in which people flourish."Footnote 10 You could therefore say that it is a win-win conceptual approach.

Application to language information systems

I therefore chose not to focus on the upheavals, conflicts and fears that accompany organizational changes, such as a business-wide adoption of a new language technology tool. Although I do not deny the existence of these upheavals and fears, or the importance of studying them, I instead chose to focus on the role of the users of these tools as agents of change. Rather than emphasizing the risk of lost independence and burnout, I chose to place emphasis on the description of positive work-related identitiesFootnote 11 as factors that promote adaptation and creativity. I chose not to look at productivity through a purely mathematical lens (ratio of the quantity produced to the number of hours required to produce it) because reducing the required number of hours can create pressure to increase the volume produced by users. I’m more interested in productivity as defined by Robert Gagné, Director of the Centre for Productivity and Propserity and Professor with HEC Montréal’s Institute of Applied Economics: [Translation] "Being more productive does not mean working more, but working better."Footnote 12 The time freed up for the user owing to the implementation of automated systems can be spent on training, conducting research, discussing work with colleagues, even meditating—activities likely to increase the user’s well-being at work and creativity. Of course, we shouldn’t think that all the productivity gains will be transferred to the user (despite the beauty of the idea); the gains will be partly invested in an increase in the volume of production, allowing the organization concerned to maintain its competitive position. However, just thinking that part of these gains can be used to increase the user’s professional well-being is a good enough reason to explore ways of making the transfer possible. Focusing on increasing productivity from a purely mathematical perspective can result in disregarding the possibility of improving positive work-related identity and, therefore, in losing a good opportunity to favour both the user’s well-being and the business’s overall performance.

Working in harmony

Positive organizational scholarship is a research posture that does not deny the existence of difficulties or obstacles (to organizational change, for example), but places emphasis on positive methodologies and concepts that are likely to foster positive work-related identities and concurrently favour an improvement in organizational performance. I have not yet fully defined my conceptual model; it may end up containing concepts referred to here as negative, given their importance in a theoretical framework or their significance to the research question. However, I think that by adopting a research posture that is positive in principle, I am increasing my chances of arriving at a positive answer to the question of whether people and machines can work together in harmony.

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