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New software, old process, big mistake

Its very common for software developers to be asked to build some software that is a straight port of an old software package, or to faithfully model (i.e. completely identical to) an existing process that the customer has. This is a huge mistake – try to avoid these projects. I hold that if the customer wants software, either custom developed or “off the shelf” purchased from a vendor, they are already changing their business model (aka their “process”). It’s the worst possible to thing to build or buy software and just model what is already done (perhaps it is actually impossible). As an senior developer or architect, my riposte to these requests is always “well don’t spend any money and just do whatever it is you do now”.

I don’t hold that software makes an existing business process “efficient” at all. Rather I think software makes possible a new process, which should be more “efficient” in terms of money gained less dollars spent – but its a new process, not the old one. In effect, new software creates new business opportunities. New software will only make an existing, unchanged process, less efficient, if a new business process is not designed along with the new software. If the business just wants new software without changing “what they do” they are wasting their money, IMHO.

Of course there is the possibility (probability?) the business doesn’t actually understand what it is they actually do anyway. This is not an uncommon position for many businesses that are happy to cruise along in neutral making some marginal profit on some marginal activity. Usually these businesses are also found to be beating their workers with sticks (usually only metaphorical ones unless they ‘offshore’ their operation to countries where killing your workers is just a part of ‘Business as Usual’. Typically they hold that marginal process can be made ‘better’ simply with just more exhortation (or threats) to greater and greater efforts at a totally demoralized (if not actively hostile) workforce, but I suspect that’s a story for another day!


  1. Ben Ihle wrote:

    “I don’t hold that software makes an existing business process ‘efficient’ at all”

    I Don’t know about that… have you seen some business processes? Software is all about automating manual or inefficient processes. I do agree however that if it isn’t broken, it shouldn’t be fixed unless it allows for new growth (which I believe is the thrust of what you are saying).

    BTW, I don’t think you are allowed to use ‘IMHO’ :)

    Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 19:09 | Permalink
  2. Scot Mcphee wrote:

    Ben, a business process that is inefficient, needs to improve, i.e.change the process. No amount of software, in absence of process improvement, will achieve this. IMHO. ;-)

    Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 21:26 | Permalink
  3. Actually, software _can_ be used to do micro-optimisation of inefficient processes. E.g. using a mail merge from a customer database to send out form letters is more efficient than printing off 10 customer details at a time and giving them to the stenographers in the typing pool to fill out on the pre-printed stationary.

    These micro-optimisations have, in the past, produced considerable cost savings. It’s obvious why they are popular – they are simple to identify, simple to implement, and simple to prove they worked. Management loves them.

    The problem is – in any organisation even remotely serious about improving, they’ve already all been done.

    Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 09:29 | Permalink
  4. Scot Mcphee wrote:

    But sending your letters through the typing pool (if you have a typing pool the letter itself would be typed there), IS a different process to using a ‘mail-merge’ program – presumably the marketing directory can upload to that program a word file that contains the letter and the addresses are selected from the company CRM.

    Eliminating the typing pool isn’t exactly a micro-optimisation. They’ve replaced the typists and a part-time typewriter mechanic with an entire IT infrastructure and department, so it’s not necessarily cheaper, either. It has enabled the business to do new things they could not do before – like access their entire customer database at once, and keep a history of all interactions will each customer too.

    Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 12:56 | Permalink