Leadership

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.

About

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 ...

10 comments
bill.tkach
bill.tkach

...and can last a very long time, as long as they are treated with care and respect. Another metaphor would be a 1960's style fridge to a low cost model today. Sure the 1950's one was made to last, and probably still runs today, but to spend the same amount nowadays on creating a fridge that lasts that long is an over-site, because it's likely that the technological advances will make having such an over-engineered device a loss in the end. Sometimes, you have to settle for something that cost's less, but does the job, in order to remain flexible and have a technical advantage.

4Santosh
4Santosh

Nice article Patrick, I liked the idea of veneer, furniture and patch on software. I see your point and agree that most of the time this is what happens. If companies understand that veneer to be a better solution for buying more time such that the root cause is addressed, final result can be amazing.

Englebert
Englebert

Works with Internet Explorer, but not with Google Chrome. Why ?

Michael Jay
Michael Jay

Guess you will come back and talk with us? One line that rather hit me as interesting and funny at the same time; "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." I have heard others refer to ITIL as a bunch of bull, or a solution desperately seeking a problem, I guess it could be a good thing properly implemented but would love to hear your take.

tvahan
tvahan

About 15 years ago or so we documented that a client's organization had an IT environment that could best be viewed as a tree. The fruits of the "investment" were shiny and easy to see. All of the additional spend the end users made to actually do work though was hidden in the roots. That's where the value was too. But they sure loved their nice pretty trees.

daphnej
daphnej

IT is at its best when SUPPORTING a business (by promoting efficiencies and forward thinking). IT is at its worst when it's cheap veneer. Thank you, Mr. Gray.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Only, whoever is responsible for the headline -- the outward-facing veneer -- glued rot to the outside of your opus. The verb needs to be, "does"; not, "do". The plural, "organizations", needs to be a singular, "the IT organization". Otherwise, a singular piece, Patrick.

niwhsa
niwhsa like.author.displayName 1 Like

...in Mountainside, NJ. Seemed like a great place the first year, but eventually the shine faded. I made the best of it until IT picked up again after 9/11 (around 2006 for me). Excellent commentary!

TAPhilo
TAPhilo

If the implemented solution does not work you can transfer blame to an outside organization and all the colleges and "experts" who stated by doing X all your own organizational problems would be solved. And if it APPEARS to work then IT gets rewarded. Its a win-win no matter what for IT.

maclovin
maclovin like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Typically, this is not the actual IT staff making such decisions, this is....AGAIN, a fault og management not understanding the actual problem, and then trying to justify "why they're here". Honestly, I didn't want to put it that way, but I think that's the only way to really say it.

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