One of the great risks of cheap, highly available technology is a focus on technology itself, rather than its application. Businesses abound with poorly considered and implemented practices and processes; perhaps they were implemented quickly to solve what seemed like a short-duration problem or were last carefully considered decades ago and have become unwieldy due to the corrupting influence of time. In short, they are crap.
Throw a cadre of technologists at these "crap" processes, and you'll end up with what my friend and leadership consultant Kevin Berchelmann aptly calls "automated crap."
Moving out of the world of the scatological, this concept remains valid and has caused many an IT project to miss its promised results.
The root cause of automated crap is perhaps the basic notion that applying a technology, methodology, or other management voodoo can replace the hard work required for personal (and organizational) improvement. Billions are spent on everything from diet pills and exercise machines, to "Unified Communications Solutions" and ERP systems, all in the name of applying a magic cure of sorts to a problem that requires hard work. Applying IT-driven automation is no exception, and just as one might purchase fancy new running shoes and gain a benefit from the purchase once they can routinely pound out a 5K, we in the corporate world should apply automation only once a process is already "fit." To determine whether you're considering meaningful automation or the latest adventure in automated crap, look for the following:
Technology won't fix behavioral problems
Are your people not talking to each other, or do line employees not understand your company's core principles? Perhaps you're hearing clamoring for an "idiot-proof system" (as an aside, whenever I hear requests to make something "idiot proof" I tell the requestor that once you build it, they'll just build a better idiot). Most of these are behavioral problems, and applying technology to them without attempting to change behavior is the corporate equivalent of the well-intentioned purchase of the Ab Master 2000, which quickly becomes a dust collector. If your people won't get off their duffs and talk to each other or pick up that most unified and universal of communications systems, the telephone, will a $500,000 video conferencing system change that behavior?
A sure sign of the potential for automated crap is WADITW - We've Always Done It This Way. Once you hear that quip, call off the IT forces, cancel the POs for the new systems, and go back to the drawing board. WADITW is usually the sign of a Rube Goldberg-esque process that's grown over the years, with new contraptions being bolted on and other creaky processes mashed together to form a convoluted whole that no one has ever taken the time to understand.
Methodologies to decipher WADITW are cheap and bountiful, and if you're a medium to large company, there are probably a cadre of experts eagerly awaiting your call to benchmark, analyze, and diagram. If you're strapped for time, there's no shame in scrapping the whole lot, considering what inputs you have and what the end outcomes must be and then determining the best way to turn inputs into outputs.
A more nefarious travelling companion of WADITW is the case of homeless crap, where not only have you always done it this way, but no one can actually articulate why you're doing it. I've seen teams and small departments dedicated to dutifully carrying out processing that was no longer required, yet no one actually took the time to question whether the work was actually relevant. You'll usually find homeless crap related to reporting, compliance with government bodies, or internal compliance and documentation. When you start hearing about nefarious government bodies or the mercurial "auditors," turn on your crap detector.
Finally, always look for the hard, financial value to the process you are automating, even if the best figure you come up with might not be perfectly accurate, at least get in the neighborhood. In the past, I wrote about a $500K solution to a $500 problem, where a company dutifully designed and implemented a carefully considered automated process. The need was there, the process was good, but no one bothered to ask what revenue that process supported. Upon further analysis, it was determined that the company had spent approximately $500K for a process that literally supported around $500 in revenue (selling scrap office paper to a local recycler in a branch office). Just because it doesn't immediately stink doesn't always mean it's not a crap process.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.