Business Process Crystallization

I’m in the process of helping a small business migrate an application that they use from Paradox back end to a PostgreSQL back end. The front end will remain written in Paradox. (There are a number of reasons for this–they’d like to have a more robust database, capable of handling more users. Also, Paradox is on the way out. A google search doesn’t turn up any pages from in the top 10. Ominous?)

I wrote this application a few years ago. Suffice it to say that I’ve learned a lot since then, and wish I could rectify a few mistakes. But that’s another post. What I’d really like to talk about now is how computer programs crystallize business processes.

Business processes are ‘how things get done.’ For instance, I write software and sell it. If I have a program to write, I specify the requirements, get the client to sign off on them (perhaps with some negotiation), design the program, code the program, test it, deploy it, make changes that the client wants, and maintain it. This is a business process, but it’s pretty fluid. If I need to get additional requirements specification after design, I can do that. Most business processes are fluid, with a few constraints. These constraints can be positive: I need to get client sign off (otherwise I won’t get paid). Or they can be negative: I can’t program .NET because I don’t have Visual Studio.NET, or I can’t program .NET because I don’t want to learn it.

Computerizing tasks can make processes much, much easier. Learning how to mail merge can save time when invoicing, or sending out those ever impressive holiday gift cards. But everything has its cost, and computerizing processes is no different. Processes become harder to change after a program has been written or installed to ‘help’ with them. For small businesses, such process engineering is doubly calcifying, because few folks have time to think about how to make things better (they’re running just as fast as they can to stay in place) and also because computer expertise is at a premium. (Realizing this is a fact and that folks will take a less technically excellent solution if it’s maintainable by normal people is what has helped MicroSoft make so much money. The good is the enemy of the best and if you can have a pretty good solution for one quarter of the price of a perfect solution, most folks will choose the first.)

So, what happens? People, being more flexible than computers, adjust themselves to the process, which, in a matter of months or years, may become obsolete. It may not do what they need it to do, or it may require them to do extra labor. However, because it is a known constraint and it isn’t worth the investment to change, it remains. I’ve seen cruft in computer programs (which one friend of mine once declared was nothing but condensed business knowledge), but I’m also starting to realize that cruft exists in businesses too. Of course, sweeping away business process cruft assumes the same risks as getting rid of code cruft. There are costs to getting rid of the unneeded processes, and the cost of finding the problems, fixing them, documenting them, and training employees on the new ones, may exceed the cost of just putting up with them.

“A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history – with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila.” -Mitch Ratcliffe, Technology Review, April 1992

A computer, for the virtue of being able to instantaneously recall and process vast amounts of data, also crystallizes business processes, making it harder to change them. In additional to letting you make mistakes quickly, it also forces you to let mistakes stand uncorrected.

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