Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Want to boost productivity? Simplify!

In an HBR IdeaCast interview with Chris Zook from Bain & Company, he shares their finding that 85% of executives see complexity, in one form or the other, as the main barrier to seizing business opportunities and being successful in an ever changing world:
"They either felt it was becoming more difficult to react to an increasingly fast world in businesses that are more complex and more muscle-bound, or to see and perceive what they need to react to or internally to decide, and to mobilize, or to focus resources for a long enough period of time"
Is seems as most people are hoping to find the silver bullet, a new IT system that will solve all their needs. Yet, introducing a new IT system often increases complexity unless you take a truly user-centric approach. What looks like simplification from a high-level top-down technology-centric perspective (typically a system map or EA models) can actually increase the complexity for individuals, making them less productive and less able to create synergies that make the enterprise as a whole more productive. Many organizations prefer this approach because it looks like things will be simplified and because it is  (or seems like) a straight-forward way to deal with the complexity, but the end result will likely be that real problems (caused by complexity) are not solved and that no real and sustainable business improvements have been achieved. 

According to the 4th annual IT Adoption Insight Report produced by Oracle UPK together with Neochange, the effective usage rates of enterprise software are down compared to two years ago, with users experiencing productivity losses of around 17%:
"It’s like giving everyone Friday off. Many factors contribute to this problem but, simply put, end users are struggling to absorb the glut of IT investments made over the past several years."
From a top-down technology-centric view it can seem like consolidating two systems into one will save costs and reduce complexity. In reality what sometimes happen is the opposite: the activities performed by people can be more complex to perform and the support they get from the new IT system might not be fit for their needs and the situations and conditions they work under. The much needed customization of the system then comes as an afterthought, and despite enormous investments in customization the end result in terms of benefits gained can turn out worse than the situation was before. People's work situations don't necessarily get easier when multiple systems are being replaced with a single new system.

In my experience true simplification can only be achieved by reducing the complexity of the interactions between the parts of a system (people, information, technology and other resources). It requires you to study these interactions in detail - why they are needed, when, who interacts, what they lead to - find typical interactions and then simplifying those interactions. Simplification efforts have to start with getting a thorough understanding of how work is done; what typical activities are performed and by whom, in what situations, under what conditions and how the activities and the people (or machines) who perform them are  interdependent. They have to be measured and evaluated based on the effects they have in daily work.

It's a simple as that, but not as simple as buying that new "silver bullet" IT system.