by Harold Hambrose

A New Dawn for System Design

Jul 16, 20144 mins
CIOEnterprise ApplicationsEnterprise Architecture

Are you building business apps that employees love to use and can pick up without training? If not, you need a different kind of design team, says design consultant Harold Hambrose.

Today an enterprise system must engage the workforce the same way Twitter, Facebook, Google and a galaxy of apps have engaged the masses. That means the next system we deploy cannot be the result of a traditional negotiation between business analysts and technologists. It must come from the same place as those consumer apps and Internet successes: the nexus of fast-paced, multi-disciplinary and human-focused development that doesn’t look or act at all like the people or processes that created the systems of the last 30 years.

When building or buying the systems that will run business in the next 30 years, we need to be ready to replace the business analyst with a psychologist or an anthropologist. We need to be ready to pair a technologist with a designer. A new day has dawned for the enterprise.

To bring the kind of success enjoyed by systems outside the enterprise into our businesses, we have to understand one key fact: Technology outside the enterprise is strikingly different because people want to use it. They aren’t trained to use it.

No one spends a dime on change management. People take one look at the stuff, understand how it is relevant to their world, buy it and never look back (at least until something better comes along). The contrast between these tools and the typical enterprise system couldn’t be starker.

The Value of Human Capital

Between the operational and IT sides of the organization lies a mysterious body of corporate resources that can provide valuable insight into how technology can serve the business in the decades ahead.

This resource is the men and women who make up the corporation: the enterprise’s human capital. Understanding them and allowing that understanding to drive systems innovation requires skills you likely don’t have in the organization and methods that may seem unconventional.

Move over, business analyst, yours is an incomplete picture of the business. Make room for the design researcher who will deliver human-centered (not process-centered) insights and opportunities.

Their perspective is different from a business analyst who will ask, “How do you do your job? What data do you need?” Instead, they may inquire, “Why do you do your job this way? Tell me about the decisions that you make. Why are these important? What is success for you? For your organization?”

Agile or rapid methods might be great for fast, iterative software development, but invite a designer into the exercise and you’ll learn how the design process allows for much more effective exploration and discovery. This isn’t the “design thinking” fad. This is “design doing” — technologists, business analysts, designers, researchers, executives and rank-and-file staffers defining possibilities together. They’re focused equally on the people that we need to perform, the technology we can deliver, and the business that must be served.

Learning It in the Streets

Pay attention, enterprise leaders. We are at a moment when we can choose to learn from the successes of technology in the streets, or we can continue to fight a war we cannot win in the halls of our companies. What’s at stake? Continued training expense, ineffective systems, unrealized return on investment — all directly proportional to how far our business and technology strategies are removed from an accurate appreciation of our human capital.

Imagine a workforce anxious for the next release or update of the enterprise system. To achieve this, we need to learn from the successes in the pockets and purses of our workforce. Expertise in business and technology has brought us to where we are. New skills and methods will get our enterprise systems to where they need to be.

Harold Hambrose is founder and CEO of Electronic Ink, an international business-system-design consultancy.