What do furniture and IT organizations have in common?

Many companies seek an organizational veneer when expanding their companies or attempting to cure a structural problem, whether through technology or process improvement projects.

If you've spent any time shopping for furniture, you've probably come across the term "veneer." A veneer is a thin sheet of wood applied over another material, usually for decorative or economic reasons. Fine furniture with intricate patterns of different woods is usually rife with hand-fitted veneers, adding to the overall aesthetic, while the bargain stuff has a thin veneer of wood hiding a less savory structural material. Most of us have experienced the "assemble-it-yourself" furniture, where the veneer eventually separates or cracks revealing cheap fiberboard or sawdust and glue-based "engineered wood" beneath the surface.

Many companies seek an organizational veneer when expanding their companies or attempting to cure a structural problem, whether through technology or process improvement projects. Vendors happily comply, offering IT-driven "solutions" that promise to cure deep-rooted organizational problems with an easily financed pile of boxes, wires, and software. Like putting a fine mahogany veneer over a rotting, unstable slab of MDF, these efforts cover up a fundamental structural problem in a superficial manner and do nothing to address the core problem. At best, a veneer of IT solutions or the latest process improvement methodology keeps things looking good for a few months and, at worst, causes the organization to assume all is well while a given area literally disintegrates from the inside out.

So why do organizations routinely seek a veneer-style solution to their problems? For the same reason we buy cheap veneered furniture or seek out a "miracle" diet pill rather than addressing a core problem of overeating: It is usually easier and cheaper in the short term. It's easier since we can apply a veneer to a problem, see that the outward appearance is much improved, and then move on to the next challenge, and it's obviously less expensive than addressing the fundamental structural problem that lies beneath the veneer. Your people not communicating effectively? Apply a veneer of "unified communications solutions." Sales and marketing not up to snuff? Glue on some CRM software and "social media awareness." IT stuck in a shared-service nightmare? Slap on some dashboards and hire an ITIL v78.643 consultant. In each case, a "magic bullet" promises to cure all woes while you carry on as you always have.

The long-term result of this is what an acquaintance elegantly referred to as OO + NT = EOO (Old Organization + New Technology = Expensive Old Organization). Simply put, you keep your long-standing dysfunctions at the core of your company, apply technology and process "solutions" as a short-term fix, and end up with a raft of expensive gadgets and processes that add to your costs but do little to change the old way of doing business. Similarly, I can drink protein shakes and consume a handful of expensive, multicolored diet pills each day, but if I continue to pack down cheeseburgers, I'll be a rotund guy who likes cheeseburgers but now complements them with a few hundred dollars of magic potions each month.

While there is a time and place for cheap, veneer-style "solutions," critical business functions or fundamental organizational problems should be attacked at their core. When you find discussions growing heated and stones being overturned that kick up some unsavory corporate critters, you are probably approaching one of these core challenges. Should the discussion suddenly veer toward a "magic bullet" that requires little effort, minimal leadership involvement, and few demands other than cutting a check, you're likely about to glue some cherry atop a damp and rotting organizational problem.


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 ...

Editor's Picks