Where workforce management meets information management in ancient Peru

Posted by Leadent Solutions on October 2, 2014

In a time dating as far back as 4500 years ago in Andean South America, in what is today Peru, when there was no written form of communication, the ancient Peruvian civilisations used a tool called Quipu [kee-poo]. Sometimes referred to as ‘talking knots’, the tool was used to record the movement of people and goods. Strings were dyed in different colours, using different types of wool and fibres and joined in a variety of manners with knots tied in them to represent numeric and other coded values. This ingenious approach to (physical) record keeping and communication was used to address information challenges relating to capturing, managing and communicating; the trade and supply of goods, collecting census information, military organisation, and more widely as a means of communicating messages to dispersed towns and villages.

This was clearly an innovative technology of their time, but we have to assume that there was also an element of people and process steps involved in introducing and utilising this tool across their communities. For example, there would have been a need to explain and disseminate the meanings of the coded values (the strings colours and knot arrangements) for recording information, and of how to interpret them. Even with a degree of speculation, for this tool to have been in use for approximately 4000 years is tantamount to its success, one that can only have been achieved with the right balance of people, process and technology.

How does this relate to today’s challenges of capturing and managing information about the movement of people and goods (broadly analogous to the definition of workforce management), you may ask? Well, many of the concepts and challenges are the same today. These include; capturing and communicating information about assets, establishing records as a ‘single version of the truth’ and sharing them amongst communities, and using this information to determine the movement of people and goods. Many organisations that have a dispersed and mobile workforce can recognise these challenges. There can be a temptation to install the latest technology to address them but if success in the long term is to be achieved then there must be due attention paid to the roles of the people and process.

That said, one of the key differences in these challenges today and those of ancient Peru is that today’s mobile communication technology and infrastructure allows us to do much more with information, more quickly and more effectively. Internet connectivity and GPS enables real-time data capture and feedback. As a result organisations can make continuous planning/scheduling updates to improve workforce efficiency, they are able to make decisions more quickly by having access to up-to-date information, and can share information more widely across their networks of colleagues, customers, suppliers and partners. Compare this to the fragmentary world of ancient Peru where communities would have to wait for the Quipu to physically arrive at the location by messenger, for its information to then be interpreted, acted upon, updated and then returned to its originator for dissemination or further action. These steps all present barriers to time and efficiency, and therefore, cost.

Today’s solutions seek to optimise these steps, to reduce their time and cost, and improve efficiency. It’s not all about technology though in today’s workforce and information management world. Sure, technology plays a crucial part but alongside it are the roles of people and process.Without sufficient focus on reviewing and optimising workforce and information processes, and without guiding and empowering the people who will use the implemented technology the solution will not get off the ground, let alone serve its purpose. Clearly the ancient Peruvians understood this.

Image: An example of a quipu from the Inca Empire, currently in the Larco Museum Collection – “Inca Quipu” by Claus Ableiter nur hochgeladen aus enWiki – enWiki, hochgeladen von User Lyndsaruell; siehe http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Inca_Quipu.jpg.