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Business and IT:  Beware the False “Solution”

Business and IT: Beware the False “Solution”

There is no dearth of wasted effort in attempting to support business with technology.  This is effort that has no lack of good intentions - yet gets misdirected and goes to waste.  In other words, it doesn’t make things better, and often makes things considerably worse. 

We’ve all been involved with “feel good” initiatives, and we’ve likely all labored at one time or another within common mistakes that both organizations and individuals make in trying to satisfy poorly conceived or false objectives.  And so we come to the False “Solution.”  It’s something that looks great on the surface, but it’s essentially an empty vessel that does not deliver the intended business or technical benefits. 

Here, we’ll look at a very simple, yet illuminating, example of a false solution.  By examining a relatively contained, organizational, risk, we’ll be in a position to recognize and vet larger scales of risk.  At any scale, we need to examine the dangers in mounting false solutions, and how to expose and avoid false solutions before they’re mounted.  For, false solutions not only fail to deliver, they consume resources and time such that they hold real solutions in abeyance.

We’re going to use a Human Resources department in this example.  We’re not going to pick on HR, or any areas in general – this is just one HR department that serves very well in highlighting the pitfalls of the false solution, and what follows comes from the real world.  The general (unnamed) product software in our example serves many organizations very well, when properly matched to needs and expectations – it just wasn’t the appropriate solution in this case.  Think about what happened in the “solution” below and apply these considerations to your own initiatives. 

A mid-sized organization of several hundred people, we’ll call them XYZ Corporation, dreaded their annual employee appraisal and review process.  They used a fairly comprehensive word processing template – a form – with an instruction set from HR on how to use the form.  There were also clear expectations for the content that was required for an appropriate appraisal.  And, HR made use of reminders through e-mail and staff meetings to bump the process along. 

However, the HR department had a difficult time getting managers to start the process on time.  This meant that draft appraisals weren’t submitted when due.  Of course, submission of completed appraisals was not made on time, and there was a further problem in that submissions failed to meet organizational standards for completeness and quality.  HR’s take on the situation was that many managers “don’t know how to write,” and HR was not shy about stating this many times in the course of the appraisal process.  Also, HR felt that there was a lack of overall “control” surrounding the whole process. 

Automation is Good – Right?

HR made a sale to the senior management team; that an “automated” software application for the management and production of employee appraisals was necessary.  The software had templates for appraisals that proposed language, based on keyword input.  In fact, entire sentences and paragraphs could be generated as suggestions for content – hence HR’s ‘solution’ for managers who “don’t know how to write.”  The appraisal software generated automatic reminders that went out (through the same e-mail system as before) as ticklers for start of the process, submission of drafts to supervisors, and submission of final appraisals to HR.    (The advantage of this auto-reminder capability was largely offset by a pre-existing ability to set up a schedule of reminders.  This capacity existed in the organization’s native e-mail application; a suggestion to do this did not fit the “sale” and was left unexplored). 

     The software also had reports capability, to track and show status of appraisal drafts, versions, finals, and where in the production process things stood.  Reports could be generated by individual, by department, by dates, etc.  Hence, HR’s solution for tardy start and submission of appraisals – a means of “control.”  Of course the vendor was a major player in this sales dynamic, and found that they had an audience already biased in terms of need, expectations, solution, and delivery.  The vendor described a wonderful appraisal cycle whereby managers would enter a few relevant keywords, resulting in whole paragraphs and tracts spilling out, tightly matched to job specifications and individual performance.  “Ticklers,” that is reminders, would be automatically generated by the system to bump along each draft for approval as the process moved along.  Ultimately, a comprehensive batch of final-form appraisals would be submitted to HR on the due date, for rollup and delivery, of all completed, quality-ensured appraisals to senior management.

Beware the “Solution” that Adds Layers of Effort to Simple Business Process

After implementation of the software, training, and completion of the first annual review of staff with the new appraisal system, something interesting was apparent.  The appraisal process was no better than before.  Appraisals that were supposed to “write themselves” turned out to be shallow, trite, and not particularly representative of the employee or their job.  Some managers leaned too heavily into the “help,” while other managers stated that starting with, and editing, the system-generated material was more difficult than preparing their own fresh draft.  In fact, the “don’t know how to write” assessment was offset by fully articulated and expressive e-mails on the part of managers. 

As far as the adherence to timeliness - for submission of drafts and final appraisals - there was no improvement.  It turned out that automated reminders from the appraisal system were viewed no differently than the reminders that had been sent from HR in the past – and through the same e-mail system.  The recipient viewed appraisal reminders from any source no differently:  They were all essentially “HR” and one is as easily ignored, or obeyed, as another.  As far as tracking the appraisals, HR now had a new burden they hadn’t anticipated – the generation of status reports regarding appraisal production.  The reports capability was paired with the expectation they had set with their senior management.  Hence the new requirement to produce and speak to these reports in management meetings.  Actually, efficiency for all concerned the first year was diminished due to the learning curve, and in everyone’s requirement to “machinate” the process surrounding production of simple text appraisals. 

Even worse, the second year’s effectiveness was no better.  In fact, it seemed to be poorer.  Because appraisals were annual, the organization’s managers didn’t think about the appraisal application for 10 or 11 months.  They were “rusty” each year.  Some managers needed refresher training.  Everyone stumbled through the application inefficiently until “reacquainting” with it.  Therefore, what was supposed to be a “solution” was now a contributor to a larger, layered, problem.

How could this have happened?  The organization was confused.  What happened to their investment?  Where was their return?  Indeed, there was no positive return – there was a negative return.  They were now saddled with expensive software, along with the upgrade schedule required by all business software, with the attendant support burden – HelpDesk, backoffice, and annual user refresher training/new manager training.  Where did XYZ Corporation go wrong? 

Next – Part II:  Beware the False “Solution”:  Automating poor process is wasteful

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