When bad standardized systems happen to good companies

Here's how bad standardized systems come about, why they're so hard to unravel, and how companies can salvage the situation

Dear Bob ...

I work in a group of about 40 to 50 people, in a large company owned by a much larger conglomerate with tens of thousands of employees in all.

[ Want to cash in on your IT experiences? InfoWorld is looking for stories of an amazing or amusing IT adventure, lesson learned, or war tale from the trenches. Send your story to offtherecord@infoworld.com. If we publish it, we'll keep you anonymous and send you a $50 American Express gift cheque. ]

I've learned over the years that when a decision is made over your head that you don't understand, it's usually because you don't have all the same information as the people who made the decision. My last boss started to groom me for the next level and giving me insight into some of those decisions. Once I understood this concept, accepting decisions I didn't agree with became easier.

I'm writing because of a major decision made last year to change our time-entry process. The reason for the switch was to standardize all employees, in the parent company and all subsidiaries, on the same system. I can understand and fully support that reason for a switch -- this isn't the first system that's been standardized.

Here's what I'm having trouble with: The old system was very easy to use and made it hard to make a mistake. The new system is very cumbersome and harder to figure out. It's a Web-based tool that looks like it was designed in 1990. It's way too easy to make mistakes and forget steps. A process that took 2 minutes a week now takes 10.

I have not heard of one single person who likes the new system. I have talked with my manager, his boss, and even the head of the department. They all know that it stinks -- but there's nothing we can do. They all feel the same pain as the rest of us.

So that brings me to my question: How can a large successful company make such a seemingly poor decision? You'll probably say there are considerations behind the scenes I don't have access to -- maybe the reporting for this tool saves countless hours each week. It's just hard to imagine something that causes such problems for all the users would have been chosen.

- Curious and Annoyed

Dear C&A ...

The answer is, in one sense, simple: There seems to be an organizational law that establishes the IQ of an organization as a whole. The formula is Average IQ/n, where n is the number of employees. If a company with 10,000 employees hires very smart people and has an average IQ of 120, the company's IQ is 120/10,000 -- very, very low compared to, say, a burrito.

It's simple and fun, but not all that helpful, so here's my guess as to how your company settled on a horrid time-entry system.

Step 1. Someone figures out that having disparate time-entry systems is dreadfully expensive, given the hidden costs of maintaining the systems and interfaces, and then figuring out how to reconcile incompatible accounting approaches to consolidate the information.

Step 2. Projects need business sponsors. The sponsor for this project is the executive who suffers most from having the multiple systems. His/her motivation: consolidate to one, at the lowest possible direct cost and shortest development schedule.

Step 3. Nobody in a position to make a decision personally cares about usability because it has nothing to do with either the business case or project sponsorship. Quite the opposite -- excellent usability would raise costs and delay delivery.

Therefore, you don't get usability -- but why would you, especially for a process that only takes a couple of minutes a week (which means, as a practical matter, it comes out of employee time rather than work time)?

The good news: I suspect this might be one of the rare cases where if enough employees raise enough of a fuss, management might actually decide to invest in something better. Be professional about how you express your opinion, but don't hesitate to raise the issue to whomever sponsored the project.

He/she might not care personally, but if a sufficient number of employees lodge the same gripe, it's wholly possible you'll see a Release 2.0 -- especially if you inform the project sponsor that many of your colleagues let mistakes slide through, meaning the company can no longer rely on the accuracy of the now-much-easier-to-consolidate data.

- Bob

This story, "When bad standardized systems happen to good companies," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.