Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Want to boost productivity? Simplify!

In an HBR IdeaCast interview with Chris Zook from Bain & Company, he shares their finding that 85% of executives see complexity, in one form or the other, as the main barrier to seizing business opportunities and being successful in an ever changing world:
"They either felt it was becoming more difficult to react to an increasingly fast world in businesses that are more complex and more muscle-bound, or to see and perceive what they need to react to or internally to decide, and to mobilize, or to focus resources for a long enough period of time"
Is seems as most people are hoping to find the silver bullet, a new IT system that will solve all their needs. Yet, introducing a new IT system often increases complexity unless you take a truly user-centric approach. What looks like simplification from a high-level top-down technology-centric perspective (typically a system map or EA models) can actually increase the complexity for individuals, making them less productive and less able to create synergies that make the enterprise as a whole more productive. Many organizations prefer this approach because it looks like things will be simplified and because it is  (or seems like) a straight-forward way to deal with the complexity, but the end result will likely be that real problems (caused by complexity) are not solved and that no real and sustainable business improvements have been achieved. 

According to the 4th annual IT Adoption Insight Report produced by Oracle UPK together with Neochange, the effective usage rates of enterprise software are down compared to two years ago, with users experiencing productivity losses of around 17%:
"It’s like giving everyone Friday off. Many factors contribute to this problem but, simply put, end users are struggling to absorb the glut of IT investments made over the past several years."
From a top-down technology-centric view it can seem like consolidating two systems into one will save costs and reduce complexity. In reality what sometimes happen is the opposite: the activities performed by people can be more complex to perform and the support they get from the new IT system might not be fit for their needs and the situations and conditions they work under. The much needed customization of the system then comes as an afterthought, and despite enormous investments in customization the end result in terms of benefits gained can turn out worse than the situation was before. People's work situations don't necessarily get easier when multiple systems are being replaced with a single new system.

In my experience true simplification can only be achieved by reducing the complexity of the interactions between the parts of a system (people, information, technology and other resources). It requires you to study these interactions in detail - why they are needed, when, who interacts, what they lead to - find typical interactions and then simplifying those interactions. Simplification efforts have to start with getting a thorough understanding of how work is done; what typical activities are performed and by whom, in what situations, under what conditions and how the activities and the people (or machines) who perform them are  interdependent. They have to be measured and evaluated based on the effects they have in daily work.

It's a simple as that, but not as simple as buying that new "silver bullet" IT system.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Making the dark matter of the business universe visible


It has now been a while since I read “Far from the Factor – Lean for the Information Age” by George Gonzales-Rivas and Linus Larsson. It's an excellent book, bringing the Lean philosophy and tools to the modern knowledge-intense and virtualized office. The authors of the book uses the same analogy I have used many times to explain the enormous amounts of hidden and invisible amounts of information which exists in all modern business environments:
“The bulk of the universe seems to be dark matter, mass that exists but cannot be observed. Only about 5 to 10 percent of the stuff in the universe can be seen directly. Information flow is the dark matter of the modern high-tech office environments. “

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The equivalent of the visible matter is the “official” information captured into process procedures and documentation, operating manuals, policies and instructions, training manuals and courses, etc. It prescribes how work should get done, but as Gonzales-Rivas and Larsson point out it should not be taken as a documentation of how things actually get done:
The unofficial, back channel and non-ex officio ways of getting things done are the dark matter. They can’t be seen, that is, an audit of methods and procedures would not reveal them, but their effects can certainly be felt. Ask yourself if any of your coworkers have taken you aside and explained “how to really get things done around here.” 
I guess we can all recognize ourselves in this picture. If email and attachment ping-ping isn’t the default practice to communicate, share and collaborate on stuff, then it's most likely some free and easy-to-use - but unsanctioned and sometimes banned - web 2.0 tool. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard something like “to get things done around here, you need to get a DropBox account. Just store your stuff in the official directories when the work is finished, but working with the official collaboration tools just doesn’t do it for us. It’s not designed for the way we work.”

In a post of mine from 2009 called "The Dark Matter of the Business Universe" I used the same analogy to highlight the amount of information exchanged in conversations:
Businesses obviously record transactions today, and most businesses try to learn from them in order to find ways to improve how they manage and operate their business. But how much does the average business really know about the conversations taking place?  
Most business conversations are transient and passes by without a notice, only touching a those individuals who participate in the conversation. Why? Because the vast majority of business conversations either take place over phone or face-to-face. Most of the conversations that are captured are typically buried in email inboxes and almost impossible to access, analyze and learn anything from. 
In a way, most business conversations are like dark matter. We know it must be there, but we can't see it and don't know what it is.” 
What social tools will do, when used properly to shift legacy practices to better practices for sharing and collaboration, is that it will surface and provide access to much of the information that already exists, but which is recreated when it cant be found, duplicated like a virus when being exchanged via email, and leading to sub-optimization and bad decision-making since it is not available to those who need it. Although we cannot observe it directly, this dark matter of the business universe, we can infer its presence from these kinds of effects.


Many still seem to fear that the introduction of social tools such as blogs, wikis and micro-blogging will create huge amounts of information and cause information overload, but what they really should be worried about and deal with is the enormous amounts of information already being created, re-created and duplicated en masse in our digital business environment. It is not the amount of information per se that is the biggest challenge to solve – it's the amount of duplicated, incorrect and irrelevant information that is not traceable to any person or project, and which cannot be trusted even if it – against all odds – is found.  Social software and Web 2.0 tools such as wikis, blogs, social bookmarking and micro-blogging can both reduce the volumes of dark matter and shift dark matter to visible matter at the same time. By making the information that exists visible, accessible and stored in one copy at one location rather than being multiplied for each user who accesses it, we will be able to avoid the negative effects caused by the multiplying dark matter. Moreover;

”Social software and the use of tools such as wikis, blogs and micro-blogs in a business context help to make potentially important business conversations visible and thereby possible to analyze and learn from. Social networks does the same thing with informal networks. The informal networks which are so important for most business can now be charted and analyzed. It is a can't-miss opportunity for organizations that want to know their business better and improve how it is managed and operated.”