Efforts to circumvent investment in basic process design by implementing off-the-shelf technology is a lazy and ineffective attempt at improving the maturity level of a company’s Objective & Analytical Culture.
Significant amounts of investment go into technologies at companies operating in a process vacuum, trying to solve operational problems, only to realize negative return on investment. Companies invest in internal technology to boost productivity, improve safety, keep records, analyze data, and make recommendations with a functional flavor or a comprehensive company-wide view. Even a small company has at least 10 to 15 relevant pieces of technology and that number goes up as the company scales. But how different are these technologies in their true essence?
What Does Technology Do For Businesses?
If we take out buzzwords and complex categorizations, businesses only use two types of technologies: 1) Technologies that improve operations, and 2) Technologies that capture, manage, and assess data. A clear operational definition, including process designs are a prerequisite for either type of technology to create value for a company. If you have been following the other articles under Objective & Analytical Culture, you might already see where we are going with this.
1: Technologies that improve operations
Over the past few decades, technology has enabled us to automate or simplify more and more human tasks. There is a wide gamut of applications that include:
- Hardware technologies that automate or ease human efforts in manufacturing, construction, and similar labor intensive environments
- Workflow management software technologies that simplify human tasks and interactions with other humans to ensure fewer mistakes are made and tasks are less time-consuming
If we really think about it, what are these technologies really doing? They are replicating human behavior with hardware and software. As we established under the Tailor Everything growth philosophy, no two companies are alike. So, the human behaviors in two companies are never the same. By extension, we are also saying that any technology used by companies to improve operations should be predicated on an articulation of human behaviors in operational roles, which is process design.
2: Technologies that capture, manage, and assess data
The second broad category of technologies help companies deal with critical information. Examples of applications around information are:
- Capture information as part of day-to-day operations for historical reference and regulatory compliance
- Capture automated or manual information about day-to-day operations that allows a company to assess adherence to processes and understand opportunities for improvement.
The information these technologies are helping us capture is ‘data’, whatever shape or form it comes in. As introduced through the Turnaround Science concept of Process-Data Symbiosis, there is no data without process.
This brings us back to the importance of a process culture and development of well-designed processes as a prerequisite to evaluating, implementing, and using technologies to improve a company’s Objective & Analytical Culture.
Understanding Technology Limitations
Technologies that businesses can procure have inherent limitations and that is just fine. Understanding those limitations is absolutely critical as a company scales up to ensure that its path to a higher Objective & Analytical Culture maturity level doesn’t stall.
1: Plugging in technology
Whichever procured technology a company considers, it was developed by the vendor to be sold at scale. Best-in-class vendors provide a range of configuration options. These configuration options can add up to millions of combinations of how the technology could be leveraged.
Additionally, each of these technologies have to operate with other technologies in a company’s operational ecosystem. Now we have multiple technologies, each with millions of configuration options. At this stage, the original thought of buying something off-the-shelf and plugging into your operations environment has to start sounding like a suboptimal idea.
2: Using technology
Let’s assume that the perfect technology that dovetails into a company’s ecosystem exists. There is another major impediment to an effective operations environment – employees have to use the technology as intended.
Incorporating use of a technology into a company’s environment implies that the company is expecting impacted employees to change their behavior. How will a company effectively ask employees to change their behaviors without a clear frame of reference about how the change fits into the broader operational landscape? Process design is this frame of reference.
Even a small company needs to teach employees how to use core technologies that it has invested precious resources into. Teaching employees cannot be a verbal outlay. Structured documentation is necessary for training and good process design documentation can serve this purpose.
No external technologies can solve these problems for a company because they can only provide specific point solutions and those may not align with rest of the company’s ecosystem. So, what’s the answer?
Process Before Technology
It is worth reiterating that the path to choosing technology goes through process design. It is absolutely important to not try to solve operational problems by throwing technology at them. Technology is not the answer. It supports the answer. First step is to always articulate the answer to the operational problem.
As shown in the visual above, the company should always begin with a process design and understand the areas where automation or information capture are necessary. Then, the company can begin an exploration of technologies that can meet those needs. As a word of warning, it is important to not get stubborn about initial or existing process designs and try to force a technology to fit those designs. Processes are always malleable and a strong process designer can triangulate between capabilities of strong technology choices and guardrails of the process design to meet the company’s needs. It’s a triangulation exercise and the goal is to find alignment.
It goes without saying that the impacted employees need to be well-trained on new technologies and there is no better place to start than strong process design documentation. After appropriate change management efforts are complete, ongoing reporting and monitoring allows the company to assess adherence to processes, which technologies are a part of.
At a small- or mid-sized company, choosing and using technologies without strong process designs is a misuse of investment as it is likely to cause further operational challenges and complexities than resolve existing ones.