Thursday, September 15, 2016

CIOs as Chief Improvement Officer: What are the signals of Dysfunctional IT Systems

To fix the root cause of the dysfunctional system, you need to look "out of the system" in order to "look into the system."

Today’s organizations are far from perfect, there are ineffectiveness, dysfunction, overlapping, complication, silo, gaps, infighting, and inefficiencies, etc., all over the place. IT is at the unique position to oversee the underlying processes, build capabilities, and orchestrate the digital transformation, CIOs as IT leaders and Chief Improvement Officer: can you identify the signals of dysfunctional IT systems - not just through the symptoms on the surface, but digging into the root causes, and fix them smoothly to improve the business agility and maturity?


When systems control the circumstances, not people, you know it doesn’t mean the system is superior, but very possible it’s broken: When service professionals want to help customers, but they complain: The system doesn’t allow me to do so.” It is the signal that something is wrong. Dysfunction, complication, rigidity, and inefficiencies are not always easy to uncover. It takes processes, methodology, and practices to identify the causes of IT ineffectiveness and inefficiency. In most cases, you don't understand your business environment because you have never looked outside the problems boundary. The first step when thinking about a system is to understand the purpose of the containing system. It means looking out of problems before looking into the problems. What Russ Ackoff (An American Organizational Theorist) used to call "looking out of the problem" as opposed to "looking into the problem.” That is the synthesis before analysis. When the system problems goes beyond the technique issues only, if, and when you ever develop the capacity for synthesis, you will discover the containing system has social, ecological, economic and political elements and you must advance the development of all of these factors in order to solve the problems in a holistic way and improve organizational maturity seamlessly.


You can tell that the system has problems when it is stifling innovation and decrease productivity: When people are not working via the system to solve the real problems but play the system to stifle innovation or build “comfort zones” to create frictions to changes, you know that there is the serious problem, and there are many possible causes of it. The elements of an outdated system are built using out-of-favor or at least depreciated tools, running on out-of-favor platforms, or documentation not matching the actual system. The bad systems are also possibly caused by complicated processes or inflexible procedures with unnecessary complexity. Those elements suggest you'll have a hard time finding people who can, or want to, work on the system; since so many people work within the system for so long; your platforms won't be robust or stable enough to support growth and change; and that the cost of understanding the risk of a change will be high. When productivity is low, the further analytics is needed for understanding the cause, whether it is due to the “hard” systems broken, change curve, inefficient practice/ process, or the “soft” culture complacency. The key issue is whether management recognizes a need for improvement and will support both the changes and the necessary change management and training/orientation. The key factor is to maintain acceptable productivity during any potentially disruptive change process, and always encourage creativity and enable innovation.


You know the systems are “bad” when they beat good people every time. Either IT or the business system as a whole, are the means to the end, not the end itself. The high performing information system should provide the right information to the right people to make effective decisions at the right time. When systems are bad, silo thinking or bureaucracy is propagating, business and IT gaps are enlarged, and functional walls go up because the system measures individual or departmental outcomes, rather than the ultimate results of the business as a whole. When the performance system is “bad,” you see mediocrity gets rewards, and innovation gets punished. In other words, what are the organization's rewards and recognition structure perpetuating? Differentiated performance metrics and rewards systems tend to bring this shift in perspective about, but they too are a necessary aspect of how an organization operates until they become counter-productive and have to be changed. As the saying goes, “a bad system will beat a good person every time.”


There are many signs about a dysfunctional system, you just need to have the insightful eyes to identify them. Generally speaking, the limitations of the systems start to show and they are no longer able to accommodate changing needs, overly rigid for protecting silos, and outdated to keep things simple. On the opposite, the good systems enable changes, empower users and talented employees, self-adaptable to meet the business needs and build a solid foundation to catalyze digital transformation.

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