Modern Work and ICT
The Nature of Work in the Developed World
Work in the UK, USA & Western Europe is increasingly knowledge-intensive. The cornerstone of this kind of work is that it has to deliver a highly customised service, one that can be rapidly changed in response to changing needs. To do such work, the workforce needs access to high-quality information. In many sectors, this is only possible using Information and Communications Technology (ICT).
The ERP Paradigm
Since the mid-1990s, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) vendors have dominated the market for software which supports business processes. The two leading vendors are SAP and Oracle. The annual world market for ERP systems is about US$40 billion and Europe accounts for about 40% of this. For every dollar earned by the ERP vendor, the “ecosystem” of consultants and other supporting service providers earns five dollars, so the total market is worth nearly US$250 billion per year.
ERP really took off with the rise of the idea of Business Process Re-engineering (BPR). The competing vendors in this marketplace battle it out using impenetrable jargon, mostly consisting of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). Most of the purchasers of these very expensive systems do not understand any of this, but they continue to buy the products because they feel safe in the knowledge that everyone else in their peer group is doing the same. In the world of mainframe computers which preceded the rise of mini-computers and personal computing, it was said that “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. In the same way, nobody gets fired for buying SAP or Oracle.
Users' Experience of ERP Systems
However, the experience of users of these systems tells a different story. From their perspective, these systems are often a nightmare to use, and most people prefer to avoid doing so, if at all possible. This is because the systems do not actually fit how the work gets done. Intelligent users therefore supplement these systems with a plethora of self-invented Excel spreadsheets, Word documents and Access databases which they share behind the backs of their ICT departments. The response of the ICT staff is patronising in the extreme. They assume that the users avoid using their “official” systems because they have been “badly trained” or are “illogical”. They try to block users from using their informal systems by any means at their disposal.
Most ICT Systems Have The Same Issues
ERP systems are only the most extreme example of this syndrome. In all walks of life, perceptive business people recognise the need to rapidly adapt their business processes to respond to changing conditions, but they find that this is impossible “because our ICT systems won’t let us”. Nobody seems to be able to break down the barrier between the work and the ICT systems needed to support it.
The Solution To The ICT Conundrum
We have devised a methodology and a set of ICT tools that successfully break through the barrier between the work and the provision of informatgion to support it. The way we work is as follows:
- Our consultant works with management to identify a key business process that is a “bottleneck” on productivity.
- Our consultant then befriends the workers in the chosen business process, observes their activities and collects samples of the data which they use to manage their work. We do not care whether this data is in formal or informal ICT systems, on scraps of paper or communicated by phone calls or emails.
- Our consultant then takes the samples of data and very rapidly loads them into a database and builds a web site (hosted on our servers across the Internet) which presents the real data in a form which could be used to support the real work, designed to precisely match the process as it stands.
- The web site is then presented back to the people who do the job for their approval. Since it contains the real data with which they work, they have no difficulty relating to it. We then adapt the design of the web site in response to their feedback.
- Once approved, we connect up the web site to sources and sinks of data in the existing ICT systems used by the organisation. This is the only point at which we require the co-operation of the Client’s ICT department – to implement precisely defined interfaces to their existing systems.
- We then work with management to identify other bottlenecks in the business process and apply the same technique again. Over a period of time, legacy systems can be switched off as the business processes migrate to the new platform.
- Our Fractal Database Model ensures that the data collected fits together into an integrated view of the enterprise, rather than a hotch-potch of disconnected parts.
- The rapidity of the development cycle means that business processes can be evolved to meet changing demands, instead of having to undergo “Big Bang”, risky upheavals, as whole new systems are implemented.
- Since the new systems fit the real work being done, they provide the data to feed the business intelligence that managers need to monitor and improve the business.
This approach has been successfully used in fields as diverse as:
- the head office of a major convenience store chain,
- a life-science research chemical manufacturer
- a housing association
Most recently (and ongoing):
- Storm tracking for a City of London underwriting firm
- A dance studio (in preparation for expanding it to a franchise operation)
- A top sixth-form college
- Management of motor manufacturers’ vehicle fleets
Our methodology and toolset work, and the technique for training consultants is also well established. The increase in productivity rolling out ICT systems is of the order of a ten-fold improvement over standard methods with significantly reduced risk.
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