by Ken Goldberg
Working in the swiftly evolving management landscape nowadays means working in unfamiliar territory. Disruption is occurring at a fast pace from a colossal hunger for information causing many changes in traditional management practices and motivating the adoption of innovative methods and bourgeoning technologies. Decision-makers seek to turn information into insights to deal with a plethora of current and emerging issues. The hope is for new information systems to help achieve corporate aims and successful outcomes like guaranteeing the safest and most efficient, fit-for-purpose assets, optimising utilisation of resources, regulating behaviour of personnel to match corporate policies, establishing effective supply chains that provide value-for-money and mitigating business risk whilst maintaining a superior level of service and profit and/or cost control. However, there are existing software technologies that are providing sub-optimal results because they have been poorly architected, become outdated, been implemented inadequately or procured based on the wrong premise.
So, how do you navigate the minefield of technology purchase? To achieve a successful acquisition and roll-out of software, businesses need to ask the right questions to determine what their primary objectives are before buying and locking into costly systems that profess to solve every conceivable management problem. However, it’s not always easy to ask the right questions to clearly define your objectives and, ultimately, it comes down to understanding the business’ needs. Theodore Levitt, the economist who popularised the term “globalisation” once said “people don’t buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole” meaning, it’s not about the function but rather the need. Needs can be about obtaining more controls and having less errors or doing things faster and cheaper. Maybe there is a need to gain insights for better decision making. Or, it could just be about simplifying work.
As part of the process of asking the right questions and analysing the organisation’s needs, different agendas within the business may be uncovered which cloud the process. For example, a Manager may want to systemise the sales process, optimise the use of technical resources, and deliver competitive services. Whereas the Department Head may be looking to increase productivity, slash spending and improve reporting. At an even higher level, the CEO may be driven by the board to mitigate risk, tighten financial controls and maximise shareholder outcomes. In the end, this may add up to conflicting goals which create less clarity and poorly defined project initiatives. These can result in ill-conceived change management processes and lead to project failure. There has been much written about this phenomenon going back to the mid-1990’s when the highly regarded Harvard professor, Dr John Kotter, highlighted that about 70% of change initiatives fail. Sometimes failure can also be the result of other key contributors including incomplete specifications, lack of user input, changing requirements, lack of resources and lack of executive support.
So, how do businesses establish clear goals and recognise needs to enable successful change to the right, new system? Organisations need to take a number of practical and analytical steps before they decide to buy a software technology and, sometimes they need to recognise that this may involve external assistance. These steps include doing the analysis to result in an accurate understanding of their strategic direction. This in turn allows them to focus on the ‘jobs to be done’. If they are heading in the direction of purchasing technology, they should give prior consideration to the change process and user experience. They should also pay attention to what will be required to streamline and automate current practices to meet objectives. Only then should software technology be applied.
Yet businesses tend to get this back to front and acquire software first to solve their problems. Here’s what’s wrong with that. The typical evolution of a software provider is developing someone else’s streamlined methods. Not yours. Growing tech companies typically leverage a subject matter expert such as a smaller client that will help to validate their concept. R&D efforts take the form of customisations paid for by clients which become incorporated into market offerings. A minimum viable product is commercialised and becomes bloated with functionality as the client base increases. Eventually, a marketing representative promotes it as best practice. In addition, assessing software technology available on the market can be problematic because a large portion of functions seen during sales demonstrations may never be rolled out or used. A 2010 study by the Standish Group has shown that 95% of features and functions in packaged software are infrequently or hardly-ever used. In the same study, custom applications did better but a staggering 50% of features and functions were hardly-ever or never used. Therefore, it is important to determine smart practices first and identify modern technologies that can act as a platform for future growth rather than getting bogged down in the latest feature sets developed for other organisations.
For businesses needing to replace existing traditional information system installations, the challenge will be identifying the gaps in current practices and potential drivers/resistance to change. Many of these legacy systems have evolved over time from areas such as finance, operations or asset management tools with kludged functionality. These incongruous systems have focused primarily on managing portions of a business lifecycle, offerings which have become industry-standard “table stakes”. So, it’s useful to recognise how much has changed in both the business and new software offerings since the purchase of the existing system. Compare the full set of needs and assess whether any offering being considered will, at the very least, provide the “must haves”. Also, beware of vendors and systems that have outdated system design, manual testing, crude project management methods and personnel, poor customer service, data integrity/privacy issues, and mediocre training, which should be front of mind when looking to modernise.
In addition, as foreshadowed in the introductory comments, management teams are under new pressures and seeking fresh approaches due to changes in the economy, legislative matters and environmental concerns now and into the future. A range of really innovative technologies are upon us or on the horizon to deal with these types of issues including Internet of Things, Big Data, Blockchain, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence to name a few. These technologies have an ability to generate actionable data. This in turn provides solutions for business optimisation, predictive analytics, personalised services, deeper customer relationships and other critical areas. The key then is to identify systems with the greatest capacity and future capability to satisfy corporate objectives whilst incorporating newer methods and ease of use to manage beyond the asset.
So, clearly businesses should analyse and diagnose before investing in software, establish a clear vision, involve people early in the project, select a solution that matches objectives, and continue to learn and adapt as the environment changes. Marvellous new technology is right here and there’s more on the horizon. Make sure your organisation is well placed to take full advantage of it and leave purchasing and implementation debacles behind.