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15 March 2005

Fix business problems before computer systems

By Andrew Clifford

Computers add value because they help you remember, calculate or communicate. But there are some problems that constantly get in the way of achieving this value. Often the real challenge and real benefit is in fixing these problems, and not in the computer system itself.

Last week's newsletter showed how valuable use of computers boils down to remembering, calculating and communicating better, faster or cheaper than people.

But there are some prerequisites that must be met before you can gain this value.

  • To benefit from a computer's ability to remember, its users have to understand the information it holds. They must be able to retrieve the information, and must trust it enough to use it. Someone has to be responsible for keeping it up to date.
  • To benefit from a computer's ability to calculate, its users have to trust the results of the calculations. The calculations have to reflect the rules of the organisation. They must be accurate and auditable. Someone must be responsible for their accuracy, which means someone has to understand how the calculations work.
  • To benefit from a computer's ability to communicate, the output has to be understandable. Any information passed from the computer has to carry the authority of its owners, so they better be sure they know what it means. Incoming communications have to be actioned in a way that represents the intent of the organisation.

These prerequisites are often not met. So often, nobody is responsible. Databases are full of junk. People don't understand the figures the computer outputs. Requests sent through the computer are not actioned. Different departments have different records, rules and communications.

You need to fix the underlying problems before you can gain value from computers.

  • If your records are a mess, you need to structure them, index them, clean them up, and make someone responsible for maintaining them.
  • If your figures don't make sense, you need to work out what the rules are, and make someone accountable for their accuracy.
  • If you don't action the instructions your customers and others send to you, and you can't put out information that makes sense, or you are giving out an inconsistent message, you've got to address your communication problems.
  • Most importantly, you need to get everyone involved to agree on all of the above.

People often think that putting in a computer system will fix problems like these. But the truth is that you have to fix these underlying human and business problems before you put in a computer system. Ironically, once you have fixed the problems, you may find that there is no real value in putting in a computer system, because the problems have gone away. Putting in a computer system before you have fixed these problems will make things worse because it hides the true nature of the problems.

Last week's newsletter had a list of things you need to check to make sure that claimed benefits are real. We also need to check whether business problems of understanding, structuring, simplification, responsibility and agreement need to be fixed before any value can be gained from a computer system. And then we need to check that there is still a value in the computer system once these problems have been fixed.

Next: Align IT to people, not people to IT

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