12 May 2015

Skin in the Game – The Human Factor

Werewolves and Silver Bullets
It is a well-known fact that if you want to kill a werewolf you need a silver bullet… and IT has more than its fair share of werewolves. What it doesn’t have is any silver bullets (although product vendors would have you believe otherwise) and it is in promising a silver bullet that IT departments create some of their biggest failures.

So let’s look at one of the most insidious and troubling of those werewolves; the one I like to call the dexterity problem. This is the werewolf that lurks in the shadows waiting to change the needs of the business the moment we launch a new system. This is the werewolf that then forces us to modify our system in ways that we never anticipated and in ways that fundamentally undermine our elegant designs.

And what silver bullet are we offered with which to kill this werewolf? The answer is business process management software (BPM). This magical product promises to give us the ability to change our solutions to adapt to new business needs at the drop of a hat, and what is more, it promises to do this without resorting to the intervention of those pesky developer types.

It brings together four lesser silver bullets (workflow, enterprise application integration, document management and rules engines) into one super bullet capable of killing the dexterity werewolf stone dead. It sounds wonderful and explaining its virtues may make you very popular with your non-IT colleagues, especially when you explain that for once they will be in the driving seat, able to change their business using a handy graphical interface. Nirvana has been achieved.

Castles in the Sky
And so you embark on your BPM delivery programme (which of course involves a large number of bearded developer types plus their entourage of architects, project managers, testers, etc.) After many months of hard work and several missed deadlines you present your beautiful edifice to the massed audience of users and they marvel.

Then someone asks the slightly awkward question. “But what if I just want to change the way I approve documents to allow X to happen”, and you look at that person and reply “well, in that particular case we would have to make a code change, but for all the other situations we planned for that wouldn’t have been necessary”. Somewhere I can hear a little boy crying “the emperor has no clothes!”, and what very expensive clothes they are too.

Now, I’m not saying that BPM doesn’t provide a certain degree of flexibility and when implemented properly does offer some independence for the business, but it is no silver bullet and I’m not convinced you would have been successful in selling it to the business as a solution without the promise that it was.

The real answer for me is much simpler. There is one part of every IT solution that is ultimately flexible; that can adapt to the changing business environment and the demands of the customer at a moment’s notice. It can even receive new instructions without the intervention of a developer.

It is of course, that most troublesome of system components - the user.

Skin in the Game
The user can change the way they use a system within minutes and they can do it creatively. They can instantly stop performing a process in a certain way and adapt to new instructions presented in plain English. They can respond to the needs of the customer even when those needs have not been anticipated in advance. And what do they need you to give them to allow them to achieve all of these things?


The users need to be trusted, because if you trust them and accept that they, like systems, occasionally make mistakes then you can simply provide them with a system that allows them to pass information between themselves in the way that they want. All you have to stop doing is locking down functionality to the point where the user is simply a drone following the instructions of the system. Accept that it is okay not to code the user out of the solution.

There are many werewolves in IT and as I mentioned at the beginning, to kill a werewolf you need a silver bullet.

Luckily for you, the real silver bullets in your organisation are your users.

The Enterprising Architect

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