Following a recommendation from a trusted source (friend and twice-colleague Gary Casey) I went and read Visibility Is Your Friend, a post on CIO.com by Michael Hugos. Excellent post, I thoroughly recommend it, and I will be adding Michael Hugos to my regular reading stack. It also made me revisit something that’s been bothering me for a while.
Systems to me have always been about people, processes and technology bound together by culture and values. Technology, both in hardware terms as well as in software terms, is commoditising; Moore, Metcalfe and Gilder keep marching on, augmented and accentuated by democratised innovation and the opensource community. Stop there for a moment and hold that thought.
While technology has been commoditising, vendors have fought hard to differentiate via lock-in, mostly staying within the letter of competition law rather than its spirit. As a result democratised innovation has not had quite the impact it could have had, and commoditisation has been slow.
At the same time, while there has been considerable talk about process automation and business process reengineering, not much has changed since the late 1980s when these were dominant buzzphrases. Project management has always been about the management of change, but somehow we’ve managed to create a whole new discipline of change management in the meantime. After all, we needed someone to blame for all the reengineering failures we had. What better scapegoat than the change function that wasn’t there at the time?
I think there was something else going on at the same time. There was a general unwillingness to document and expose processes, particularly in the services sector. This unwillingness was natural and rooted in pure insecurity, as people worried about their jobs and consequently tried their hardest to obfuscate what they did. How was this obfuscation carried out? Usually by enshrining processes that nobody understood into ERP, SCM and CRM systems, thereby legitimising the inefficiencies. And that may be why so many people failed at many things: at using value chain analysis, at implementing project accounting, at documenting processes for quality certification or for that matter Sarbanes-Oxley, at driving value out of ERP, SCM or CRM systems.
All these things depend on processes being correctly described. And on reliable metrics for those processes. Two things that were conspicuous in their absence.
Absent because of human insecurity. Insecurity that was understandable, insecurity that had its roots in words like downsizing and outsourcing and rightsizing and rightsourcing and outsizing and downsourcing. Words that represented things that often failed. Things that often failed because they were based on the wrong information. Information that was corrupted as a result of human insecurity. All understandable, all very sad. And everyone lost. The customers, the shareholders, the employees, even the consultants. Maybe not all the consultants….
When these things were failing, we started doing something else, something very related to our assembly-line roots. We started seeking to standardise jobs. Tried to put people in boxes. Any colour you like as long as it’s red. That way, we had something else to blame when the results didn’t bear inspection.
Because the Emperor had to have his Clothes. We couldn’t actually say that we didn’t have standardised processes, that we hadn’t really documented them anyway, that we couldn’t measure them if we wanted to.
No, it was easier to say our people needed standardising. It was easier to say that while in the same breath claiming we had a War For Talent, however ludicrous that sounded.
And we had help in keeping that perception of the Emperor being Clothed. Help in the shape of meeting minutes and presentations and spreadsheets. Where all the “power” in the organisation began to vest in the people who controlled the spreadsheets, the presentation decks and the meeting minutes. The perception established by these documents became the reality of office life. And everybody lost, except for those who knew how to jockey their way into Perception Control. Maybe that’s when I started losing interest in Office, wanting a more open and collaborative environment.
People. Processes. Technology.
We can standardise technology, and continue to do so. We can and should standardise processes, see what happens when we apply opensource thinking to service processes.
After all, it’s not the technology that will differentiate us. It’s not the process either, though there might be a short-term imbalance.
What differentiates us is the quality of the customer experience, which is about people. It’s about poetry and dance and music and art. It’s about Cluetrain. It’s about markets. And conversations.
No army of monkeys will ever be able to convince me otherwise. However much Shakespeare is perceived to have been produced.
Sometimes perception isn’t reality.
So I will take a leaf out of Michael Hugo’s book, and look for ways to expose processes and their associated metrics in order to adapt and improve them. Make them truly visible, rather than susceptible to gaming by Excel and PowerPoint.
Given enough eyeballs…..