Have we really done with process optimisation?

An old mentor of mine said that if you want to sell something, tell a story around it. IT vendors do this all the time. Sometimes it’s a tale about how the product was developed, and on other occasions it’s a customer anecdote. Stories provide a way of putting the offering into context in a way the buyer can understand quickly and easily.

But some of the stories trotted out by IT vendors as part of the preamble to their product pitch are more akin to fairy tales. One of these doing the rounds at the moment is concerned with how we are entering a new era of Big Data and Analytics.

The associated narrative usually begins with the statement that the 1990’s were all about fixing and automating business processes. Reminiscences about the glory days of ERP come out here, with a 30-something product manager, who was still in school at the time, glibly telling us that while we dealt with the ‘process problem’, we didn’t actually move the business forward in any meaningful way.

Then came the era of the Web. Everyone was rushing to get their business online during the dot.com period. And where did that supposedly get us? Well nowhere fast, because it was all about doing things quickly and electronically, and no one had an eye on whether what was being done was actually right for the business.

And then we arrive at today’s common assertion, that having sorted out the mechanics of back office and front office business processes, we now need to move on to the kinds of investments that will make a real difference. It’s time to start exploiting all that data which is accumulating from transaction systems and web interactions.

Cue the Big Data and Analytics pitch.

It’s a nice story. It is logical. It does flow. And it ends up with a call to action that easily seduces both IT and business people: execs are granted their wish for serious ROI from IT at last, while techies get to play with lots of new stuff to make their life more interesting.

The trouble is that business processes are far from ‘sorted out’ in most organisations. Take, for example, the customer interaction side of the equation; this is still not properly joined up across field operations, the call centre environment and the web site, let alone emerging mobile and social media channels.

Over the years, individual requirements for automation and optimisation were dealt with, and often very well in the specific context of the then current business need. But when you look around at what has accumulated over the past two or three decades, and consider how well it all works (or does not work) together to meet current business needs, the chances are that in many areas it will not be that harmonious, efficient or effective.

The truth is that it’s naïve to think that anything can be ‘fixed’ or ‘dealt with’ forever in the context of enterprise IT. This is like saying “That’s the last time I am going to cut the lawn or weed the flowerbed”. The continuous evolution of both technology and business practices means that if you leave any aspect of your IT infrastructure untouched, it will gradually become more costly and less fit for purpose over time, and ultimately obsolete.

This is why those seductive stories about the latest hot ideas and technologies are so dangerous. Your attention is drawn to the next ‘big thing’, which makes it more likely that creeping inefficiency and ineffectiveness will be overlooked.

The irony is that what’s at stake, from a business performance perspective, is often much greater. Additional insights generated through Big Data might help to tune marketing campaigns, but should this really be your first priority when valuable existing customers are defecting to the competition because they can no longer stand the pain and frustration of dealing with you? Focusing on modernising and streamlining your customer service systems and processes probably makes more business sense.

Of course we don’t always have to think of these as ‘either/or’. The point is to ensure that modernisation and rationalisation initiatives receive the same level of consideration as more ‘sexy’ projects during your investment planning process.

But how do you pull this off against the onslaught of propaganda from vendors and pundits, and people’s natural inclination to focus on the new and different?

This is one of the questions that will be addressed at the ComputerWorldUK Management Forum on process optimisation at the St Ermins Hotel, in central London on Wednesday 4 September. During this, you’ll hear the Freeform Dynamics perspective on how investing in the right kinds of modernisation initiatives can not only save money and reduce risks, but also lay the foundation for more innovative and effective ways of working.

To illustrate how the key principles play out in practice, Peter Craven, Project Service Manager at Debenhams, will then discuss the compelling results and benefits you can obtain by tackling something as basic as streamlining your printing and imaging infrastructure.

At a time when heroes are made by initiatives that deliver tangible business benefits rather than by proving bleeding edge technology concepts, why not join us and participate in the debate? To find out more and secure your place, click here.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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