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Blogs > MWD Advisors

Systems of co-ordination: greasing the wheels of engagement
Neil Ward-Dutton By: Neil Ward-Dutton, Research Director, MWD Advisors
Published: 13th January 2012
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
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Ever since I read Geoffrey Moore’s Future of IT paper introducing the concept of systems of engagement (published last year), I’ve had a slight uneasiness about the ongoing discourse. For a long time it was nothing I could put my finger on, but in some recent conversations about how technology can improve business agility, I finally realised what had been niggling me. In this blog I’m going to explain what I think is missing.

Systems of engagement vs. systems of record: a summary
If you’re not familiar with the narrative around systems of engagement, in brief it goes like this:

‘Systems of record’ – systems which manage core business information types and provide facilities for processing the information in place (think financial management, logistics, billing, CRM, and so on) – are no longer a source of competitive differentiation: they are a necessary condition of doing business, but because their capabilities are so commonplace their presence is merely table stakes. Increasingly, globalisation is forcing companies to focus more strongly on their core capabilities, and work more broadly and deeply with other companies and agencies to deliver value to customers. This means that communication and collaboration are more important than ever before. And this is where the concept of ‘systems of engagement’ comes in: the idea is that in this more distributed and  collaborative business environment, the ability to adopt the advanced communication and collaboration tools that people are familiar with in their home lives will become the new focus for competitive differentiation through technology in business environments.

Something’s missing
Before I go any further, I should be clear: I have nothing at all against the assertion that the business value of technology is shifting away from how well information is managed in place (by ‘systems of record’), towards how well information is communicated – between systems, people and organisations. I’m also absolutely in agreement with the assertion that social collaboration technologies have some really exciting roles to play in driving business improvement.

But based on my research and industry experience I think there’s something really important that’s omitted from the narrative that I’ve seen: and that’s to do with how the changing nature of value chains, combined with changing customer expectations, regulatory pressures and so on, is forcing a new kind of appraisal of how work needs to be supported by technology. Specifically, the key part of the ‘how’ here that we need to concentrate on is to do with the co-ordination of work.

It’s no longer enough (and in fact it hasn’t been enough for some years) to give people standalone tools (including those ‘systems of record’) and expect them to just get on with it and produce great work. The pressures highlighted above mean that to deliver great business performance, optimising work at the level of an individual’s contribution is a long way from enough; businesses need to be able to optimise how work gets done at a much larger scale.

However I’m not talking here about changes like the outcomes of the BPR programmes of the 1980s and 1990s – rigid process ‘improvements’ that ushered in massive changes to administration and operations through top-down diktat and only offered crude transactional ‘solutions’ that attempted to control information, the focus of work and change in a highly centralised fashion.

Instead we need to invest in systems and cultures that allow technology to be woven more closely into a broad range of types of work, where that work naturally happens, to help actively coordinate how work gets done between people, departments, and companies – and also, crucially, to gather intelligence and metrics that organisations can use to improve coordination and drive better business results.

Introducing ‘systems of co-ordination
Of course, anyone who’s been following my ramblings for a while will know that what I’m talking about is the application of Business Process Management (BPM) technologies and techniques*. These technologies and techniques, when used properly, create systems of co-ordination that enable businesses to systematically manage and improve their knowledge about ‘what works in work’ for them, and apply that knowledge directly in an operational context across people, departments and even corporate boundaries.

In his Future of IT analysis, Moore mentions co-ordination as a responsibility of systems engagement in passing, but I think that a mention in passing just isn’t enough. Given the length of time I’ve spent talking to companies that have implemented process improvement programmes and projects I might have too much bias colouring my view, but I think the value of these systems of co-ordination is just as crucial an element of business-technology strategy and investment as are systems of record and systems of engagement.

In an enterprise people don’t collaborate just for the fun of it – people collaborate to “get work done”. But how does knowledge about the best way to do work, and get the best results from work, get encoded, applied, managed and improved? Neither systems of record nor systems of engagement (at least, in terms of how the latter are painted in the discourse I’ve seen so far) have anything to offer in this respect.

Greasing the wheels between systems of engagement and systems of record
To my mind, then, the narrative needs to be refined. Businesses need to start to figure about the roles that systems of engagement should play in helping them maximise the effectiveness of business interactions, and consider how systems of engagement should play alongside systems of record: but crucially, the interface between systems of engagement and systems of record should not be a direct one. Between these two system layers – the grease between the wheels – should be systems of co-ordination.

What do you think? Am I the only one who thinks we need to look at this more closely? I’d love to hear your comments.

*There’s been a lot of debate about the limits of the applicability of some BPM technology in the face of different types of work – structured vs. unstructured, planned vs. unplanned, goal-oriented, collaborative, and so on – but I’m explicitly avoiding those details here and talking at a general level for the purposes of this piece.

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