29 September 2020

Strategic Management: Simplicity V (ERP Implementations' Story I)

Probably ERP Implementations are the most complex type of projects one deals with in the IT world, however the complexity seldom resides in technologies themselves, but in the effort that needs to be made by organizations during and post-implementations. Through their transformative nature implementations have the potential of changing the whole organization if their potential is exploited accordingly, which is unfortunately not always the case. Therefore, the challenges don’t resume only to managing a project or implementing a technology, but also in managing change, and that usually happens or need to happen at several levels. 

Typically, the change is considered mainly at IT infrastructure and processual level, because at these levels most of the visible changes happen – that’s what steals the show. For the whole project duration is about replacing one or more legacy systems, making sure that the new infrastructure works as expected. The more an organization deviates from the standard the more effort is needed, and this effort can exhaust an organization’s resources to the degree that will need some time to recover after that, financially, but maybe more important from a vital point of view.

Even if the technological and processual layers are important, as they form the foundation on which an organization builds upon, besides the financial and material flow there are also the data, informational and knowledge flows, which seems to be neglected. Quite often that’s where the transformational potential resides. If an organization is not able to change positively these flows, on the long term the implementation will deal with problems people wished to be addressed much earlier, when the effort and effect would have met the lowest resistance, respectively the highest impact. 

An ERP implementation involves the migration of data between source(s) and target(s), the data requirements, including the one of appropriate quality, being regarded in respect to the target system(s). As within the data migration steps the data are extracted from the various sources, enriched and prepared for import into the target system(s), there is the potential of bringing data quality to a level which would help the organization further. It’s probably simpler to imagine the process of taking the data from one place, cleaning and enriching the data to bring it to the needed form, and then putting the data into the new system. It’s a unique chance of improving data quality without touching the source or target system(s) while getting a considerable value.

Unfortunately, many organizations’ effort of improving the quality of their data stops after the implementation. As long there’s no focus and there are no structures in place to continue the effort, sooner or later data’s quality will decrease despite the earlier made efforts. Investing for example in a long-term data quality improvement or even a data management initiative might prove to be an exploratory and iterative process in which mistakes are maybe made, the direction might need to be changed, though, as long learning is involved, in this often resides the power of changing for the better.

When one talks about information there are two aspects to it: how an organization arrives from data to actionable information that reach timely the people who need it, respectively how information is further aggregated, recombined, shared and harnessed into knowledge. These are the first three layers of the knowledge (aka DIKW) pyramid, and an organization’s real success story is in how is able to manage these flows together, while increasing the value they provide for the organization. It’s an effort that must start with the implementation itself, or even earlier, and continue after the implementation, as an organization seems fit. 

27 September 2020

Strategic Management: Simplicity IV (Designing for Simplicity)

More than two centuries ago, in his course on the importance of Style in Literature, George Lewes wisely remarked that 'the first obligation of Simplicity is that of using the simplest means to secure the fullest effect' [1]. This is probably the most important aspect the adopters of the KISS mantra seem to ignore – solutions need to be simple while covering all or most important aspects to assure the maximum benefit. The challenge for many resides in defining what the maximum benefit is about. This state of art is typically poorly understood, especially when people don’t have the understanding of what’s possible, respectively of what’s necessary to make things work smoothly. 

To make the simplicity principle work, one must envision the desired state of a product or solution and trace back what’s needed to achieve that vision. One can aim for the maximum or for the minimum possible, respectively for anything in between. That’s at least true in theory, in praxis there are constraints that limit the range of achievement, constraints ranging from the availability of resources, their maturity or the available time, respectively to the limits for growth - the learning capacity of individuals and organization as a whole. 

On the other side following the 80/20 principle, one could achieve in theory 80% of a working solution with 20% of the effort needed in achieving the full 100%. This principle comes with a trick too, because one needs to focus on the important components or aspects of the solution for this to work. Otherwise one is forced to do exploratory work in which the learning is gradually assimilated into the solution. This implies continuous feedback, changing the targets as one progresses in multiple iterations. The approach is typically common to ERP implementations, BI and Data Management initiatives, or similar transformative projects which attempt changing an organization’s data, information, or knowledge flows - the backbones organizations are built upon.     

These two principles can be used together to shape an organization. While simplicity sets a target or compass for quality, the 80/20 principle provides the means of splitting the roadmap and effort into manageable targets while allowing to identify the critical components of focus, and they seldom resume only to technology. While technologies provide a potential for transformation, in the end is an organization’s setup that has the transformative role. 

For transformational synergies to happen, each person involved in the process must have a minimum of necessary skillset, knowledge and awareness of what’s required and how a solution can be harnessed. This minimum can be initially addressed through trainings and self-learning, however without certain mechanisms in place, the magic will not happen by itself. Change needs to be managed from within, by the people close to the flow, and when necessary also from the outside, by the ones who can provide guiding direction. Ideally a strategic approach is needed where the initial state is identified, the vision and the roadmap to address it are sketched, where intermediary targets are adequately mapped and pursued, and the progress is adequately tracked.

Thus, besides the technological components is needed to consider the required organizational components to support and manage change. These components form a structure which needs to adhere by design to the same principle of simplicity. According to Lewes, the 'simplicity of structure means organic unity' [1], which can imply harmony, robustness, variety, balance, economy or proportion. Without these qualities the structure of the resulting edifice can break under its own weight. Moreover, paraphrasing Eric Hoffer, simplicity marks the end of a continuous process of designing, building, and refining, while complexity marks a primitive stage.

[1] George H Lewes (1865) "The Principles of Success in Literature"

Considered quotes:
"Simplicity of structure means organic unity, whether the organism be simple or complex; and hence in all times the emphasis which critics have laid upon Simplicity, though they have not unfrequently confounded it with narrowness of range." (George H Lewes, "The Principles of Success in Literature", 1865)
"The first obligation of Simplicity is that of using the simplest means to secure the fullest effect. But although the mind instinctively rejects all needless complexity, we shall greatly err if we fail to recognise the fact, that what the mind recoils from is not the complexity, but the needlessness." (George H Lewes, "The Principles of Success in Literature", 1865)
"In products of the human mind, simplicity marks the end of a process of refining, while complexity marks a primitive stage." (Eric Hoffer, 1954)

13 September 2020

Knowledge Management: Definitions II (What's in a Name)

Knowledge Management

Browsing through the various books on databases and programming appeared over the past 20-30 years, it’s probably hard not to notice the differences between the definitions given even for straightforward and basic concepts like the ones of view, stored procedure or function. Quite often the definitions lack precision and rigor, are circular and barely differentiate the defined term (aka concept) from other terms. In addition, probably in the attempt of making the definitions concise, important definitory characteristics are omitted.

Unfortunately, the same can be said about other non-scientific books, where the lack of appropriate definitions make the understanding of the content and presented concepts more difficult. Even if the reader can arrive in time to an approximate understanding of what is meant, one might have the feeling that builds castles in the air as long there is no solid basis to build upon – and that should be the purpose of a definition – to offer the foundation on which the reader can build upon. Especially for the readers coming from the scientific areas this lack of appropriateness and moreover, the lack of definitions, feels maybe more important than for the professional who already mastered the respective areas.

In general, a definition of a term is a well-defined descriptive statement which serves to differentiate it from related concepts. A well-defined definition should be meaningful, explicit, concise, precise, non-circular, distinct, context-dependent, relevant, rigorous, and rooted in common sense. In addition, each definition needs to be consistent through all the content and when possible, consistent with the other definitions provided. Ideally the definitions should cover as much of possible from the needed foundation and provide a unitary consistent multilayered non-circular and hierarchical structure that facilitates the reading and understanding of the given material.

Thus, one can consider the following requirements for a definition:

Meaningful: the description should be worthwhile and convey the required meaning for understanding the concept.

Explicit: the description must state clearly and provide enough information/detail so it can leave no room for confusion or doubt.

Context-dependent: the description should provide upon case the context in which the term is defined.

Concise: the description should be as succinct as possible – obtaining the maximum of understanding from a minimum of words.

Precise: the description should be made using unambiguous words that provide the appropriate meaning individually and as a whole.

Intrinsic non-circularity: requires that the term defined should not be used as basis for definitions, leading thus to trivial definitions like “A is A”.

Distinct: the description should provide enough detail to differentiate the term from other similar others.

Relevant: the description should be closely connected or appropriate to what is being discussed or presented.

Rigorous: the descriptions should be the result of a thorough and careful thought process in which the multiple usages and forms are considered.  

Extrinsic non-circularity: requires that the definitions of two distinct terms should not be circular (e.g. term A’s definition is based on B, while B’s definition is based on A), situation usually met occasionally in dictionaries.

Rooted in common sense: the description should not deviate from the common-sense acceptance of the terms used, typically resulted from socially constructed or dictionary-based definitions.

Unitary consistent multilayered hierarchical structure: the definitions should be given in an evolutive structure that facilitates learning, typically in the order in which the concepts need to be introduced without requiring big jumps in understanding. Even if concepts have in general a networked structure, hierarchies can be determined, especially based on the way concepts use other concepts in their definitions. In addition, the definitions must be consistent – hold together – respectively be unitary – form a whole.

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