Varieties of Work-Changing IT

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Andrew McAfee in London last week, but for some reason I hadn’t yet seen his article in November’s Harvard Business Review. So we didn’t talk about it. Shame, but one that’s easily corrected.
It’s well worth a read; I’m working on my comments and will share them with you in a post later. In the meantime, I believe it’s available free-to-air for the rest of this month, so do try and take a look, you can find the article here.

I just can’t resist one comment though. Take a look at the table below.


Andrew makes one very very important point. Not that the others aren’t important, but one of them really stands out for me.

In the table above, he defines Enterprise IT as “IT that specifies business processes“.

He does not say “IT that is specified by random and ever-changing and poorly articulated and inconsistent and sometimes even nonexistent business processes.”

IT that specifies business processes.

By this I don’t mean that the IT department has to specify all the business processes, that’s just plain stupid. What I mean is that enterprise systems work well only when there are rigorous standardised processes; they work well when these rigorous standardised processes are industrial strength, with external frames of reference; they work well when the number of processes is kept to an absolute minimum, and where process divergence and diversity is avoided. The “system” consists of people, processes and technology, working to common goals and held together by a common culture. Too often it’s the process piece that goes AWOL, aided and abetted by avaricious consultants, accepted and nourished by inertial inhouse staff.
IT that specifies business processes.

If only that were true. If only I had a dollar for every time “respectable” consultants plundered the heart of an organisation by mangling an enterprise resource planning system until it was as unfit for purpose as humanly possible. If only I had a dollar for every time “responsible” business users lapped up all this attention and “blamed” the internal IT department for rampant project failure, because they believed the lie. The lie that an ERP system was meant to mirror their existing processes. because they wanted to believe the lie. If only I had a dollar for every time the internal IT department quietly acquiesced and said it was all their fault, fired a few innocents, promoted a few bystanders, whatever. If only.

8 thoughts on “Varieties of Work-Changing IT”

  1. To set the context correctly, Andrew McAfee was talking about the sort of big systems that are bought from outside and plonked on an organisation. The organisation has to adapt. No choice, apart from not buying in the first place.

    Here’s an extract from his article: “Applications that define entire business processes, such as CRM and SCM—as well as technologies, such as electronic data interchange, that automate communications between companies—fall into this category.”

  2. The issue that JP raises hear makes for an interesting follow-up to my promotion of Kenneth Burke in his entry on film-making and software development:

    Another take on the distinction between dramatism and scientism is the distinction between LEXIS and PRAXIS. This may be trivially reduced to the distinction between “word” and “deed;” but I prefer to think of it as a distinction between the noun-based and the verb-based (which lines up nicely with Burke’s concern for grammatical issues). As John Seely Brown has pointed out, a business process is an ABSTRACTION of work practices; and the heart of the abstraction is a REDUCTION OF VERBS TO NOUNS. Enterprise software has perpetuated (aggravated) this abstraction with representations based entirely on OBJECTS and ATTRIBUTES; and to call this an impoverished representation of motivated actions (which is where praxis is recognized) involves a degree of politeness and generosity that I fear I lack.

    Last week I was reading (for the second time) the Preface that Newton Gaver wrote for SPEECH AND PHENOMENA, a collection of Derrida essays translated into English. I liked the way Gaver talked about the transition that took Wittgenstein from his early (TRACTATUS) work to his later (PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS) period. He described Wittgenstein as turning “from making demands to making observations.” Do any of us NOT know some prominent IT authority who built a career around making demands and never acknowledged the value of making observations? Put another way (but to again resort to litotes) one would have to be blind to ignore the role of motivated action if one commits oneself seriously to making observations. Meanwhile, I invite anyone interested in honoring praxis as much as lexis to check out my entry at:

  3. One possible answer to the question as Oz Designs articulated it: The bigger the company, the greater the need for business process technology to coordinate the enormous scale of operations; the greater the reliance on business process technology, the stronger the bias towards the objective; the stronger the bias towards the objective, the greater the neglect of the subjective, i.e. the “human factor” of ALL stakeholders.

Let me know what you think

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