The need for improvements in information management systems and practices within organisations is great. Spend half a day talking with a random selection of staff, and the list of desirable fixes and enhancements will be lengthy.
Whether it is the need to log into three different applications to complete a single task, or the filling out of a poorly-designed paper form where an electronic one would work better. Staff are struggling to do their jobs, and we are not providing them with good tools or systems to help in their day-to-day tasks.
So my question is: why are we wasting our time with grand “enterprise” projects when there are so many more immediate problems to be fixed?
Within organisations at present, there is a great interest in pursuing a range of “enterprise” projects relating to information management. These projects may include:
- Purchasing an “enterprise portal” to provide a single interface for all systems and data sources.
- Rolling out an organisation-wide document or records management systems.
- Pursuing the goals of “enterprise content management”, such as the integration of web content management, document management and records management.
- Deploying “enterprise search” solutions to provide a single search across many different business systems.
- Developing all-inclusive “information management strategies”, which offer a complete architectural model for all systems.
- Implementing a new IT architecture, with the goal of reducing the number of applications within the organisation.
- Developing corporate taxonomies (or even ontologies).
- Developing an organisation-wide knowledge management strategy.
- Focusing on enabling “knowledge sharing” across all areas of the organisation.
These projects have many things in common. They all can cost upwards of a million dollars (or more). Where there is technology involved, it will typically take a year (or more) to select a product. Another year will then be needed to implement the core of the system, to provide the platform for business-specific solutions.
So after 1-2 years of work and a lot of money and resources, what has been delivered? Beyond a range of potential improvements to back-office IT systems and processes, what are the direct benefits for the organisation?
In many cases, it is only after these huge projects have worked their way through the initial phases of selection and deployment that actual business problems can be solved. And this is where everything can become unstuck.
Let’s face it: many of these systems and projects will never work. The track record for “enterprise” projects is not good, with many failing to deliver the much-hyped benefits. In many cases, these same solutions are quietly “rolled out” several years later.
In the meantime, these projects have consumed most of the energy within the organisation, and staff are still left waiting for their much-needed solutions and improvements. Quite rightly, there is much cynicism amongst general staff regarding these projects.
These grand projects come and go to match the passing fads of the information management industry as a whole. And yet, after many years of work and countless projects, have the tools, processes and environments provided for general staff improved much?
Do we really need huge projects in the first place?
There are no shortage of business problems to be solved and improvements to be made. Instead of trying to eat the elephant whole, perhaps the better way is to take one bite at a time?
Individual business units are not well-placed to solve many business problems. A centralised team of skilled (and resourced) project staff can do much to quickly develop small but useful solutions. Running (or facilitating) these projects centrally ensures they are done in a coordinated way, rather than the usual mess of fragmented and poorly-designed solutions.
This is not to say that the bigger picture is forgotten, quite the opposite. While individual activities are always focused on immediate needs, consideration is given to longer-term objectives. This influences the selection of the projects, the technology used, and the points of integration into other systems.
Instead of setting in motion an enterprise project that will take 12-18 months to deliver the first benefits, why not start by improving leave applications by doing some point-to-point integration between HR and IT systems? Or replacing some PDF forms with electronic equivalents? Or improving the search tools for the call centre staff?
Lessons learnt from these individual projects then help to inform more strategic plans, as well as building up vital expertise and experience within the organisation. Each of these “quick wins” delivers real (and measurable) benefits, as well as demonstrating the value of the overall programme of work. Each small success enables ever-larger projects to be tackled.
There is so much that can be done to improve the daily work of staff throughout the organisation. The technology we have at our disposal is powerful and effective. Yet we do not seem to be putting this technology into practice.
Instead, we are spending most of our time (and money) developing grand strategic plans, producing elegant diagrams, and deploying huge enterprise software solutions. This is despite the consistent experience across organisations that few measurable benefits are delivered by these activities.
So this is a call to arms: let’s start solving the real (and immediate) problems of staff, by delivering practical technology solutions that work. We should keep our eye on the bigger picture, practice good planning and project management, but fundamentally, we should deliver real improvements. We have the technology, now we just need the will to do the work that will make a difference.