Re: Musings on technology and organizational learning

Eric Bohlman (
Tue, 13 Dec 1994 13:59:38 -0800 (PST)

> Where I see the REAL PROBLEM in business today is that people whose
> paradigm is in building information systems are becoming more involved in
> organizational change efforts. The concern is that with all that we know
> about information systems the history of their application has been filled
> with rather dismal results, with the exception of a few, repeatedly
> referenced success stories. Now, after that kind of success record the
> reengineering movement seeks to let people, mostly with a history and
> background in IS, redesign organizational processes. The issue that I have
> seen is that those people often seek to design organizational processes so
> that the computer can function more effectively, not the people using the
> computer. People are ultimately more flexible than technology so they are
> often the ones asked to make the adjustments. Do you wonder why Hammer
> and Champy find that 70% of reengineering projects fail?

Part of the problem is that many IS types "grew up" professionally at a
time when computers were expensive and people were cheap. At that time,
it made economic sense, albeit on a rather superficial level, for people
to do extra work to save computer time. Now it makes no economic sense
at all, since the lines crossed several years ago and an hour of human
time costs a LOT more than an hour of computer time. Doing things "the
way they've always been done" now means trying to make expensive people
work like cheap machines.

Another problem is that IS departments are, in a sense, children of the
1950's, an era where, in the US, conformity and control were emphasized
to a much greater degree than at any other point in the nation's
history. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the
"counterculture" and "loss of values," much of the social and attitudinal
changes of the 1960's were really a "return to normal" rather than
something revolutionary. Unfortunately, people have a tendency to assume
that the way things were when they grew up was the way things always
were, and the way they always should be. When you combine this tendency
with the fact that during the 1950's the US economy was being pumped up
as a result of our being the only industrial power that hadn't been
bombed to smithereens, and the fact that the Baby Boom caused a large
proportion of the population to have grown up in that era, you get lots
of people thinking that if we could only go back to the "values" (often
confused with fashions and styles) of that era, we could also recapture
its prosperity. But that won't work; a way of running organizations that
was adaptive in an era of being the only game in town and of having to
satisfy the demand built up from ten years of depression and five years
of war is going to be maladaptive in today's world.

One of the problems with any bureaucratic and hierarchical organization
is that over time, the systems and procedures established as means to the
organization's ends start becoming ends in themselves. This can lead to
a hidebound approach to change; as the external (customer) demands on the
organization change, the organization runs the risk of trying to select a
purpose to match its internal structure, rather than the other way
around. This can lead to mental models in which people exist to support
technology which exists to do the job, instead of technology existing to
support people who do the job. This is a dead end, because the only way
an organization can create value is to meet the needs of people external
to it, and this requires the organization to be built around those needs
(and to be fluid enough to reconfigure itself as those needs change),
rather than building itself around some sort of internal vision and
announcing to the world "we're going to do this, anyone need it?"

From: (Eric Bohlman)