A Nail Keeps the Shoe
Probably one of the most misunderstood aspects for businesses is the implications the adoption of a new technology have in terms of effort, resources, infrastructure and changes, these considered before, during and post-implementation. Unfortunately, getting a new BI tool or ERP system is not like buying a new car, even if customers’ desires might revolve around such expectations. After all, the customer has been using a BI tool or ERP system for ages, the employees should be able to do the same job as before, right?
In theory adopting a new system is supposed to bring organizations a competitive advantage or other advantages — allow them reduce costs, improve their agility and decision-making, etc. However, the advantages brought by new technologies remain only as potentials unless their capabilities aren’t harnessed adequately. Keeping the car metaphor, besides looking good in the car, having a better mileage or having x years of service, buying a highly technologically-advanced car more likely will bring little benefit for the customer unless he needs, is able to use, and uses the additional features.
Both types of systems mentioned above can be quite expensive when considering the benefits associated with them. Therefore, looking at the features and the further requirements is critical for better understanding the fit. In the end one doesn’t need to buy a luxurious or sport car when one just needs to move from point A to B on small distances. In some occasions a bike or a rental car might do as well. Moreover, besides the acquisition costs, the additional features might involve considerable investments as long the warranty is broken and something needs to be fixed. In extremis, after a few years it might be even cheaper to ‘replace’ the whole car. Unfortunately, one can’t change systems yet, as if they were cars.
Implementing a new BI tool can take a few weeks if it doesn’t involve architecture changes within the BI infrastructure. Otherwise replacing a BI infrastructure can take from months to one year until having a stable environment. Similarly, an ERP solution can take from six months to years to implement and typically this has impact also on the BI infrastructure. Moreover, the implementation is only the top of the iceberg as further optimizations and changes are needed. It can take even more time until seeing the benefits for the investment.
A new technology can easily have the impact of dominoes within the organization. This effect is best reflected in sayings of the type: ‘the wise tell us that a nail keeps a shoe, a shoe a horse, a horse a man, a man a castle, that can fight’ and which reflect the impact tools technologies have within organizations when regarded within the broader context. Buying a big car, might involve extending the garage or eventually buying a new house with a bigger garage, or of replacing other devices just for the sake of using them with the new car. Even if not always perceptible, such dependencies are there, and even if the further investments might be acceptable and make sense, the implications can be a bigger shoe that one can wear. Then, the reversed saying can hold: ‘for want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost’.
For IT technologies the impact is multidimensional as the change of a technology has impact on the IT infrastructure, on the processes associated with them, on the resources required and their skillset, respectively on the various types of flows (data, information, knowledge, materials, money).
The Technology-oriented Patient
Looking at the way data, information and knowledge flow through an organization, with a little imagination one can see the resemblance between an organization and the human body, in which the networks created by the respective flows spread through organization as nervous, circulatory or lymphatic braids do, each with its own role in the good functioning of the organization. Each technology adopted by an organization taps into these flows creating a structure that can be compared with the nerve plexus, as the various flows intersect in such points creating an agglomeration of nerves and braids.
The size of each plexus can be considered as proportional to the importance of the technology in respect to the overall structure. Strategic technologies like ERP, BI or planning systems, given their importance (gravity), resemble with the organs from the human body, with complex networks of braids in their vicinity. Maybe the metaphor is too far-off, though it allows stressing the importance of each technology in respect to its role and the good functioning of the organization. Moreover, each such structure functions as pressure points that can in extremis block any of the flows considered, a long-term block having important effects.
The human organism is a marvelous piece of work reflecting the grand design, however in time, especially when neglected or driven by external agents, diseases can clutch around any of the parts of the human body, with all the consequences deriving from this. On the other side, an organization is a hand-made structure found in continuous expansion as new technologies or resources are added. Even if the technologies are at peripheral side of the system, their good or bad functioning can have a ripple effect trough the various networks.
Replacing any of the above-mentioned strategic systems can be compared with the replacement of an organ in the human body, having a high degree of failure compared with other operations, being complex in nature, the organism needing long periods to recover, while in extreme situations the convalescence prolongs till the end. Fortunately, organizations seem to be more resilient to such operations, though that’s not necessarily a rule. Sometimes all it takes is just a small mistake for making the operation fail.
The general feeling is that ERP and BI implementations are taken too lightly by management, employees and implementers. During the replacement operation one must make sure not only that the organ fits and functions as expected, but also that the vital networks regained their vitality and function as expected, and the latter is a process that spans over the years to come. One needs to check the important (health) signs regularly and take the appropriate countermeasures. There must be an entity having the role of the doctor, who/which has the skills to address adequately the issues.
Moreover, when the physical structure of an organization is affected, a series of micro-operations might be needed to address the deformities. Unfortunately, these areas are seldom seen in time, and can require a sustained effort for fixing, while a total reconstruction might apply. One works also with an amorphous and ever-changing structure that require many attempts until a remedy is found, if a remedy is possible after all.
Even if such operations are pretty well documented, often what organizations lack are the skilled resources needed during and post-implementation, resources that must know as well the patient, and ideally its historical and further health preconditions. Each patient is different and quite often needs its own treatment/medication. With such changes, the organization lands itself on a discovery journey in which the appropriate path can easily deviate from the well-trodden paths.
Checking the Vital Signs
An organization which went through a major change, like the replacement of a strategic system (e.g. ERP/BI implementations), needs to go through a period of attentive supervision to address the inherent issues that ideally need to be handled as they arise, to minimize their future effects. Some organizations might even go through a convalescence period, which risks to prolong itself if the appropriate remedies aren’t found. Therefore, one needs an entity, who/which has the skills to recognize the symptoms, understand what’s happening and why, respectively of identifying the appropriate actions.
Given technologies’ multi-layered complexity and the volume of knowledge for understanding them, the role of the doctor can be seldom taken by one person. Moreover, the patient is an organization, each person in the organization having usually local knowledge about the patient. The needed knowledge is dispersed trough the organization, and one needs to tap into that knowledge, identify the people close to technologies and business area, respectively allow such people exchange information on a regular basis.
The people who should know the best the organization are in theory the management, however they are usually too far away from technologies and often too busy with management topics. IT professionals are close to technologies, though sometimes too far away from the patient. The users have a too narrow overview, while from logistical and economic reasons the number of people involved should be kept to a minimum. A compromise is to designate one person from each business area who works with any of the strategic systems, and assure that they have the technical and business knowledge required. It’s nothing but the key-user concept, though for it to work the key-users need not only knowledge but also the empowerment to act when the symptoms appear.
Big organizations have also a product owner for each application who supervises the application through its entire lifecycle, and who needs to coordinate with the IT, business and service providers. This is probably a good idea in order to assure that the ROI is reached over time, respectively that the needs of the system are considered within the IT operation context. In small organizations, the role can be taken by a technical or a business resource with deeper skills then the average user, usually a key-user. However, unless joined with the key-user role, the product owner’s focus will be the product and seldom the business themes.
The issues that need to be overcome after major changes are usually cross-functional, being imperative for people to work together and find solutions. Unfortunately, it’s also in human nature to wait until the issues are big enough to get the proper attention. Unless the key-users have the time allocated already for such topics, the issues will be lost in the heap of operational and tactical activities. This time must be allocated for all key-users and the technical resources needed to support them.
Some organizations build temporary working parties (groups of experts working together to achieve specific goals) or similar groups. However, the statute of such group needs to be permanent if the organization wants to continuously have its health in check, to build the needed expertize and awareness about occurred or potential issues. Centers of excellence/expertize (CoE) or competency centers (CC) are such working groups with permanent statute, having defined roles, responsibilities, and processes for supporting and promoting the effective use of technologies within the organization, respectively of monitoring and systematically addressing the risks and opportunities associated with them.
There’s also the null hypothesis, doing nothing, relying solely on employees’ professionalism, though without defined responsibility, accountability and empowerment, it can get messy.