Recently I was repairing our tumble dryer and I got thinking about the number of redundant features on modern domestic appliances and other everyday equipment. Everything from mobile (cell) phones to washing machines seems to have programme options and facilities that no one uses; in many cases users are not even aware of them.
This was brought into sharper focus by this week’s death of Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple. Apple has built its brand around a philosophy of simplicity and good design. Ever since the original Mac, Apple has steadily removed features of marginal utility. At times this seems to have gone too far for many users but with time it has often seemed prescient as others have followed suit. Unlike so many manufacturers who use technology and add complexity Apple uses technology to simplify the usability of its products.
If one looks at a modern domestic washing machine it has programmes for everything. The temperature can be set from little more than room temperature practically to boiling; there are programmes with and without spin, variable spin speeds and even degrees of agitation. Talking to most people they use one or two, usually low-temperature, programmes for all their washing. Many people just separate light and dark washing into delicate and the rest.
Many organisations are still organised by specialist function, which was fine for low-tech 18/19th century paper based processes and knowledge systems. Fundamentally, they still use the model of separating functional specialisations advocated by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations (1776). Fortunately, there are better ways in the 21st century.
Organisations structured around their processes and using modern user-managed technology would enable the harnessing of functional specialism where needed as part of processes. Shifting the power to front line process owners from functional teams such as IT, Finance, HR will lead to a more natural flow to operations. It will also align services, responsibilities and technology with business priorities and customer needs. Departments should have end to end responsibility for one or more processes.
In their 1995 book Reeningineering the Corporation Michael Hammer and James Champy identified the elimination of hand-offs between teams as key to efficient processes. Whilst most major organisations have had process reengineering teams and since moved on to business process optimisation they have not really removed functional silos. Such silos seem extremely resistant to change, perhaps because most senior executive cut their management teeth running functional departments? Too often processes remain bounded by the departmental structures.
The constant focus on information technology (IT) as business enabler is an outdated model. IT infrastructure for most business purposes is, or should be, a commodity simply provided as a background service. The “cloud” has brought this into clearer focus but the same should be true of traditional third-party hosting and even data centres.
"Big" information technology tends to be a drag on business change. Many organisations are hostage to centralised IT and expensive software development and systems implementation. Process owners and customer facing services cannot make changes to meet their business needs but have to work to timetables, and expense, defined by centralised technical functions and external suppliers. IT and especially large-scale systems implementation do no not appear to have made the same sort of productivity and responsiveness gains made by operational services.
Liberation of the end user and their processes has not happened despite the personal computer revolution and wider computer skills. IT services still run, pretty much, as though they use a large centralised mainframe. In my 1999 book The Information Edge, I highlighted the growth of informal, local systems based on spreadsheets and local databases that actually met frontline needs. The situation has become even more diverse with the cloud, e-mail, web services and mobile applications; this is because IT departments often still have a legacy mind-set that IT must be centrally controlled.
The joy of consultancy and mentoring is the opportunity to talk with interesting people and understand their challenges, issues and opportunities. In fact for me it is less about talking and more about listening; asking questions that get behind the issue and make the client think. It is the pleasure of helping people achieve their dreams.
Clients, and others, suggest that my strength is that I come at matters from different directions and see past the obvious. Apparently I make people think differently about the problem and together we find new connections and fresh solutions. It is not for me to judge how accurate that assessment is but I do love ideas and applying imagination to business and personal challenges.
This facelift of Solidus will move it away from corporate dinosaur speak and consultancy weasel words. The aim is to be open, honest and to use straightforward language avoiding consultancy mumbo-jumbo. These frequent "Thoughts" will be opinionated but hopefully well-mannered and based on clear thinking and experience. If such ideas upset some people I am sorry but we were probably never going to have the chemistry necessary for a successful consultancy or mentoring relationship.
Something for the weekend is intended as a light diversion into non-work matters. It is the equivalent of business newspapers' weekend supplement.
Thoughts on politics and government without a party political slant. Short pieces intended to ask questions and challenge established thinking.