Welcoming Our Software Overlords

Not so long ago, we were working with a client. The CEO of the company had asked me to build some forecasting models for the company’s new business unit with a soon-to-be-launched product. I spent a lot of time working with the company’s operations teams, trying to get a grasp on their production plans. This involved a lot of Excel work, Not the fancy kind of Excel with macros and clever formulas, but the very prosaic work of keeping detailed lists. For all of the complexity involved, this was not Excel as an input for Big Data, this wall Excel as a step up from Post-it notes. The operations team had all kinds of conditionals to track – if this feature is ready by this week then we can approach that customer, or work on that extra feature and charge that other price.

And then the weirdest thing happened. After months of this, when I finally had an ungainly but comprehensive spreadsheet covering everything, the Operations team said “OK, I think we can now enter this into the Planning Software.” It turned out that the parent company had a very sophisticated piece of forecasting software. The license for that software cost several orders of magnitude more than I was charging, but had all the conditionality and tracking features. While I was grateful for the project, I had to wonder why they did not use the software they already had in place.

My friends in Operations told me that they only entered data into the software once they had ‘locked down’ the data themselves. I researched the software package in question. Its website had all kinds of language about productivity and insights, with pretty pictures of pretty people drawing neon lines around the frame while sitting in a sunlit conference room with stylish Scandinavian furniture. They were marketing software as the future. But the reality was software as Oppressive Overlord.

In this case, the Operations team felt that once the data was in the tracking software, management would have access to the data. Then that data would be run through filters and models and procedures, maybe even rising to the level of being entered into some accounting system (horror!). This meant expectations and obligations. The team had subconsciously sacrificed all the utility of the software in exchange for some internal organizational benefit.  I think this may have been an extreme case, but I believe that much of enterprise software ends up relegated to this kind of role. Many of the older software systems in place were built for the purpose of giving senior management better insight into their business. This goes back to the days of giant Oracle databases and clunky ERP systems.  But despite all the talk today of the magic of the Cloud and empowerment through analytics, I think many of the software tools in the workplace today are still greatly under-utilized for these kinds of institutional reasons.

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