A mid-life crisis of back-office business tech

midlifecrisistechIn 2016, the back-office business tech marks the 45th anniversary of Email on its computer networks. It had 16 years of nagging Skype messaging, and a 15-year love-hate relationship with Share Point. More recently, it has started using a flashy new cloud ERP solution. Is it having a mid-life crisis?

On a more serious note, during the past 45 years of modern computing, we have witnessed a fantastic technology progress which has been the direct or indirect source of business value in companies large and small. We have also entered the digital age, with everything virtual or “in the cloud”, enormous computing power at the tip of our fingers, instant access to data anywhere, and overall, a level of tech innovation that permeates through, and positively changes, all aspects of our daily lives.
Looking at business-supporting technology (think your regular back-office environment), we have also seen huge improvements over this period. Computers that are faster, smaller, cheaper – to the point of becoming a commodity. Smart devices. Applications that enhance productivity & collaboration in real time. Tools that help us visualise and interact with data, bridging virtual and real. Paperless environments. Decision support with advanced analytics based on huge amounts of information.
And yet, I believe that the rate of innovation in business-supporting tech is slowing down. In fact, I would argue that over the past 5-10 years we have just seen more of the same, with a dressing of the Moore’s Law: tech that gets faster, smaller, or with nicer interfaces, without being fundamentally different. Like a rock star in a mid-life crisis, back-office tech releases old hits, re-packaged and delivered with a few extras. And like the rock fans, users are talking about the times when the original hits really made a difference.

Where is the problem?
The problem that I see here is not with the technology, it’s with the business process, and here is why.
Technology supports the business processes which we have put in place. It ideally should automate or eliminate the repetitive and low-value steps of the process. It should support us, in bringing value to the process through our judgement, creativity and innovation.
By optimising the underlying technology of a business process, we can improve the corresponding steps of that process: e.g. switching from fax to email will make information transfer instantaneous. However, optimising the technology that supports a process is not the same with optimising the process. This is where I believe that many businesses have failed, resulting in staff becoming victims of the Moore’s law, and investments in technology not delivering the expected value.
While computers and systems get faster, humans still require about the same amount of time to analyse data and reach conclusions, take decisions, etc. While we can have instantaneous exchange of information, this does not mean that we can process it at the same rate at which we receive it – and most of us have our inboxes to prove it. By introducing new technology without a review of the business processes, there is a chance of improving a step in the process while making the end-to-end processes less effective.

Is there a solution?
Whether the tech improvements are driven by vendors (e.g. upgrades included with your licenses) or by technology refresh programs, an analysis of the business processes supported by this tech is a must. If your business can afford it, having external advice on business process improvement can be very helpful. Management consultants come at varying levels of experience and cost, and doing your research beforehand can save money and ensure effective results.
There is, also, a self-help solution: democratising business process mapping and analysis across the enterprise. You can have a good start by offering staff training in documenting business processes (e.g. BPMN 2.0) and encouraging critical process thinking. This would not replace external expertise; however, it would be an approach beneficial in the long-term. It will not only instil innovation and empower those involved (as change is driven by internal sources rather than being imposed externally), but it will also create a distributed team that has the understanding of your business processes, and can analyse technology impact.

Conclusion
Shiny new tech might not be the solution to your back-office business mid-life crisis. You need to step back and ask “How would I do this if I were to start from scratch?” every now and again. Are your business processes (or their steps) still relevant, particularly in this digital age?

Do you have an opinion about this subject? Don’t just keep it to yourself, share it here:
What 3 back-end, tech-enabled business processes would you change if you were to start your business from scratch, and how?

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