IT was once thought of as a purely supportive function, one whose primary responsibility was “keeping the lights on,” so to speak. Today, however — as technology has come to permeate every element of our lives and our companies — IT has become a crucial business asset, fundamental to maintaining sound operations and to driving business forward more generally.
For example, IT is today entrusted with determining how to use technology to achieve a diverse and at times conflicting array of business outcomes — from increasing efficiency and accelerating sales velocity to minimizing cost and decreasing risk. To this end, IT must support and empower a wide variety of cross-functional and preferably symbiotic processes, while at the same time ensuring those processes don’t create bottlenecks, technology gaps, or money pits — all while proactively and empathetically managing a complex ecosystem of personal preferences, needs, and levels of technological expertise.
Which is all very difficult. Due to conflicting demands on their time, meanwhile, IT professionals spend far less time working to achieve business outcomes than they do putting out fires to keep the existing infrastructure functioning. Rather than focusing on strategically improving their company’s technological orchestra, CIOs and their teams play lots of technological whack-a-mole.
For this reason, one key question on the minds of CIOs and their team-members is how, exactly, to more efficiently go about this critical work of using technology to improve business outcomes?
Here are 5 essential strategies to help you get started.
One reason IT’s job is so challenging today is the larger entrepreneurial culture in which IT exists has made it that way. For years now business leaders have been trending away from an operational philosophy — championed by the likes of Henry Ford — that prioritizes efficiency. One way business leaders have done this is by neglecting the relevance of people in increasing efficiency and increasing sales velocity. Jeffrey Pfeffer, former Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, wrote about this shift 30 years ago in his book, The Human Equation:
“Rather than putting their people first, firms have sought solutions to competitive challenges in places and means that have not been very productive — treating their businesses as portfolios of assets to be bought and sold in an effort to find the right competitive niche, downsizing and outsourcing in a futile attempt to shrink or transact their way to profit, and doing myriad other things that weaken or destroy their organizational culture in efforts to minimize labor costs — even as they repeatedly proclaim, “people are our most important asset.”
The truth is, to do something like use new technology to create a more holistically efficient operational infrastructure, or to maximize business outcomes, committing to thinking “people-first” is a necessary first step and a helpful governing principle. In Ford-ian language, that means that the process effectively brings the work to the employee, rather than the other way around.
At the outset of designing a new process, ask yourself the following questions: What kind of workflow would save my employees the most time, cut down on menial follow ups, and allow them to focus most purposefully on the things they’re best at? What do they absolutely loathe doing right now? Where do people prefer to work? Can I optimize a process without introducing a new interface that people must adopt? (What applications are they already using?)…
Next, seek out technology solutions that will enable you to design processes that can adapt to employees’ unique preferences and needs in this manner — and that allow the possibility of creating backup plans. FYI: The tool you’re looking for must allow you to create processes that are differentiated. Meaning: capable of meeting employees where they already are, accommodating their working styles, and that are resistant to breaking. This technology should function behind-the-scenes, in the manner of an operating system that only process designers control. An example of such a solution is Tonkean’s Adaptive Business Operations (ABO) platform, which we’ve designed to function in what we call “The Orchestration Layer” of your company’s operations.
The more disparate, static, siloed apps your processes and systems rely on, the harder you’re making it on your people to focus on the work they need and want to be focusing on. This, in turn, makes it harder for your company to be efficient, as each new app introduces new opportunities for wasted movement (another thing Ford abhorred).
At the risk of oversimplifying things, for employees, the functional limitations of the applications we’re all subservient to today — from Asana, Salesforce, Slack, Jira, even Gmail — prove constrictive. All told, they compound the culture of unempathetic, tech-first thinking — as opposed to moving us closer to being able to think procedurally and holistically. To create cross-functional, tech-driven processes that are efficient and put people first, we need to do the opposite: make those processes dependent on as few apps as possible. Simple is best.
So how can you and your team reduce app-dependency in practice?
The goal here is to consolidate the number of applications or work environments you use; the tools your processes rely on — and that, in turn, your people interact with — should be truly essential.To that end, take inventory and determine which tools you’re currently using are most crucial.Then, in designing the processes you’ll need to run at scale, use only the technology tools that are most essential.Finally, utilize a platform that itself will effectively integrate these disparate apps and reduce the number of interfaces people need to directly touch — making it possible for support managers who’re working in Zendesk to collaborate seamlessly with engineers in Jira, say — and that will automate the menial tasks (things like cross-platform data input) that encumber multi-tool-dependent processes to begin with.
Automation technology is hugely beneficial in reducing the amount of manual, menial, and relatively low-value work employees are forced to conduct day-to-day. This includes manually entering data into multiple systems, chasing people for updates, and bridging technology gaps, among other things. Well-used, it can also increase the amount of visibility stakeholders have into revenue cycles, by automatically capturing pieces of information relevant to new opportunities. And for IT leaders, it can help you scale processes by completing for employees tasks they would not otherwise have the time or attention to do.
That said, enterprise automation solutions are not the silver bullets many folks presume them to be, capable of magically automating entire key processes end-to-end. Automation cannot on its own solve the business process challenges of rigidity and inefficiency from which many companies suffer. Just as packaged applications can’t truly solve process challenges on account of not being customizable to your unique business needs, the same is true of automation solutions. In fact, as we’ve mentioned, automation creates more rigidity because the different cases in each process must be mapped out ahead of time, and updating automation scripts is incredibly difficult.
More importantly, most key processes shouldn’t be automated end-to-end. The processes your IT team creates are very likely multifaceted and complex. To run correctly — such that they create value of the sort we’ve been discussing — they require something automation technology can’t provide: nuance. A smarter use of automation to improve process design is to use it not as an end itself, but as a means of augmenting employees’ ability to do their job effectively. That means keeping a human-in-the-loop.
So how do you design automation-enabled processes that keep a human-in-the-loop?
When identifying processes to augment with automation, don’t limit candidates to processes that mandate repetitive data entry tasks. Also include processes where there is unnecessary manual work due to coordinating people (approval processes, escalations, cross-team information sharing). Look holistically at processes to determine what steps actually need people and what steps should be handled by technology.Create a structure so that in times of disruption or uncertainty, people are kept abreast of the process and item details to be able to step in and make judgement calls.Focus on the connection points between automated actions and human actions to ensure smooth transitions where the person is provided full context.Use an ABO platform that allows you to design processes in which all the disparate tasks you want to automate can be coordinated by one person at the same time.The Tonkean platform, in particular, allows you to automate tasks (by way of adaptive modules) such as routing & delegating work, analyzing and entering data, collecting, monitoring and reporting information, and coordinating approvals and follow-ups with people — all under the supervision of a human-in-the-loop, who can make adjustments as needed, and in effect coordinate traffic to ensure the automation is working as needed.
Adopting a platform designed specifically to empower IT teams in this work of process and solutions orchestration is the easiest, quickest, and most economic way to create truly efficient cross-functional processes and maximize business outcomes. It’s also the most immediate and most practical means of beginning to embrace the mindset required of increasing efficiency, putting people first, and scaling your ability to focus on optimizing your company’s operations.
For one thing, having an ABO platform directly improves your ability to adopt and help employees derive value from other tools. It does this by allowing people to interact with those tools in a more natural way — namely, by pinging them and prompting them to action through the existing ecosystem of their choice, such as email or Slack.
It’s also a means of accelerating time-to-value for newly adopted technology solutions. Most new pieces of tech take months, if not years, to implement and get people using. This is because of the large amount of change management required of adopting — and teaching employees to use or accommodate — new tech solutions. With an ABO platform, however, which in effect allows you to bring those new tech tools to your employees, accommodating their preferences and needs, you can reduce time-to-value from months or years to days.
Finally, ABO platforms, thanks to their no-code functionality, effectively liberate IT leaders from the frantic work of playing technological whack-a-mole. This is because, by way of an ABO platform, a CIO, for example, can themself appoint process designers and ops teams to build custom solutions and processes tailored to their specific needs and contexts while maintaining essential visibility and control into what they’re doing. Today, when business teams create their own solutions of IT, black holes occur, and IT can lose insight into why those solutions exist, or how they fit into the larger technological ecosystem. A platform like Tonkean makes the genesis of such black holes nearly impossible.
Perhaps most importantly, by putting control of how exactly employees are introduced to and interact with tech tools (such as certain automation solutions), and by providing the ability to create new solutions themselves (while always maintaining visibility and control), platforms like Tonkean enable IT teams to themselves become centers of excellence.
This, in our minds, is an integral step to take in designing not only better companies, but a more desirable future — one that prioritizes and appreciates the needs of people, and that allows them to focus on tasks befitting their intelligence and creativity. As it happens, there’s really only one form of technology that — in having been designed specifically for them — will reliably equip IT teams to that end, and that’s ABO.
Also published here.