Saturday, October 04, 2003

Who's holding the reins? Is it you?

I had dinner with a very funny and startlingly bright guy the other night - a former CIO deep inside the US government who I probably shouldn't name or say any more about. He told me a great story: A few years ago he was over in the UK watching a military review - one of those things where the might of the army is put on display in an exercise. The main focus was on the ability of the gunners to load shells and fire rapidly, repeatedly. It sounded like a lot of fun, as long as you weren't too close to the target I guess. Just before the gun was fired, a member of the crew would sprint back (away from the direction of fire) about 30 yards and turn around sharply to face the gun. Every time. This guy wondered what that was all about and asked all the senior people around what it was for. Everyone nodded sagely and noted that it was part of the tradition, but noone could quite explain why exactly it was done. A couple of days later, the truth was discovered. Long ago (well, I guess not that long ago), guns were brought to the battlefield by horses. The horses would, naturally, remain close by so that the gun position could be moved if needed. Of course, horses get startled by loud noises, so the reason that one of the crew ran back in those days was to hold the reins of the horse, to prevent it from bolting. And they still do it today. So, if you're doing anything today that you probably don't need to do any longer, you're probably holding the reins of a long since dead horse. Time to change perhaps? On a similar note, another of the evening's stories followed the development of an ERP package for a particular part of the business - and by ERP here I mean the SAP/Peoplesoft/Oracle type of application that many businesses use to integrate their entire operation. One part of the organisation was perplexed as to how to implement the tool for adding a new employee. Every employee had to fill in a form that covered their life history and that stretched to around 18 pages. But the new application only provided 3 "tabs" for entering data for a new person. The business wanted to change that so that the app had all 18 pages represented as individual tabs. After all, that would mean that the people doing data entry could flip tabs every time they flipped a page - keeping everything nice and simple. Of course, the cost of making such a change is pretty large, and the cost of maintaining the change in successive releases of the core application is even larger. I imagine that Peoplesoft et al design their apps a certain way for a reason - something simple like they've found it works better the way that they do it. So, why not change the paper form to match the tabs available ... or, better still, why not make the form available online as a series of tabs and get the new employee to fill it in online themselves and dispense with the data entry part? Easy stuff, but how many people do you know in your organisation who are still holding the reins, or paving the cowpath if you prefer?

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