Thursday, November 3, 2011

IT is NOT the solution

I often preface my talks and lectures with this statement: "IT is not the solution."

After saying that, I can separate the veterans of IT projects from IT development newbies. The veterans will nod in agreement and the newbies frown at my puzzling statement.

Blame it on the phrase "IT solution" that the industry uses. The term tricks us into thinking that technology is the solution by itself. It is not. Information technology is only an enabler or facilitator of the real solution.  

I'll give an example. In one failed database project I've been asked to troubleshoot, the boss (let's call him Mr. A) expected that a document tracking system (let's abbreviate it to DTS) would solve the pesky problem of employees consistently misplacing important files. Yet, when the software was built the problem persisted. They even installed bar codes and scanners to make DTS more convenient to use.

Mr. A asked me if RFID (radio frequency identification) would help improve the DTS. Apparently, some vendor had approached their company and told them that bar codes are history. The real solution is RFID. Why? Bar codes need line of sight and people actually "shooting" a scanner on the bar code. RFID gets automatically detected without people having to do extra work. 

I interviewed him and his staff to find out more about the problem. What I found is that even if they had installed RFID, the real problem would still continue: employees did not buy into the value of tracking documents easily. And Mr. A never really understood that installing the DTS would need at least two factors:
  1. A change in the office procedures to add a checkout step. ("Before you bring that file out, please sign the logbook.")
  2. A records officer who would really do his job. ("Hey, where are you going with that file? Bring it here and sign the logbook.")
None of these steps require technology. They in fact require a change in staff behavior. And to change behavior, Mr. A needed to convince employees of the value of checking out a file.

Mr. A had too much faith in information technology and he thought installing the DTS and a nifty bar code or RFID system would automatically change the procedure. In reality, employees found it tedious to log the file they were borrowing for just a few minutes. By not seeing the big picture (ie, if we lose the important files, we lose time and money trying to hunt down where the files are currently located), the employees did not buy into the need for logging and tracking documents.

So remember: IT is NOT the solution. Remembering this will help you make your IT projects less prone to failure.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree on this one! Technology has to really take into account the office culture. Superimposing a rigid template on another unyielding one will only worsen dissonance. Results can be disappointing at best or disastrous at worst. IT bosses should be good at reading people and behavior, not just be competent at project management. I can understand the wonderful intellectual satisfaction derived from plotting algorithms, and the temptation is great to adapt this as a worldview where everything falls into place as calculated. Reality disappoints or jolts us awake and uh-oh, too late, there goes the IT budget...


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