Working practices

The complicated organisation: part 1, explanation

Aaron Levie, founder and CEO of Box.net, advocates simple technology solutions for large companies. That should be obvious, so why do companies go for complicated solutions? He argues that it’s mainly because people compare feature lists, and longer feature lists win. I’m sure that’s true, but I’d argue that a more significant reason is that unnecessarily complicated products align with unnecessarily complicated organisations…

Two departments, communicating indirectlyWhy do organisations become complicated?

Organisations are complicated because they’re split into departments which have to interact with each other. The complications lie less in individual departments, but more in how those departments interact. Because each department has its own priorities and own ways of doing things there need to be translations at the interfaces between departments, and it’s those translations and misaligned priorities which cause the complications.

One place these interface-translations can be seen is in form-filling and template documents. Because different departments work at different speeds (after all, they’re doing different things) it’s common that someone asking for something will be asked to fill in a form. That way the department can queue it up and deal with it when they’re ready. But an impersonal form is a one-way, one-shot communication (rather than a human dialogue) so it has to ask an excess of questions just to cover every eventuality. And despite that plenty of detail will be missed.

As a result of this the system which handles the form needs to deal with an excess of information which, perversely, is still missing key detail. This can lead to exceptions which makes the system more complicated. And this is replicated across the organisation.

Complicated software systems derive from silos

This is the world into which vendors sell so-called “enterprise software”. They call it enterprise software, by the way, because it costs as much as a starship.

When that software is sold it’s typically sold into a department, to solve the department’s problem. And the department’s problem is that it is very complicated. The software addresses this problem by automating the complication.

Complicated software systems entrench silos

Now you can see why this kind of software is expensive: (a) it needs to integrate with data from other places and (b) it’s just complicated. And therefore it is also expensive to change. It’s difficult enough changing the way a group of people (the department and their peers) behave; add to that having to reconfigure a complicated software system designed to match current behaviour and it would be amazing if it ever changed at all.

That’s why complicated software systems solidify complications in the organisation.

Summary

So that’s why organisations buy into complicated software:

  1. Because the organisations are divided into departments, each with their own priorities; and
  2. The technology is designed to support the status quo;

As a side-effect this makes it near-impossible to simplify the organisation.

In the second part of this article I’ll suggest how things might be tackled differently.

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