Unblocking information bottlenecks
Bottlenecks. Any business process can have them but, controversially, they sometimes say more about the IT department than they do about the team that is being blamed for slowing the company down.
How? More often than not a business process will require multiple data input points and interactions with several teams. Look at any form or request for action as it travels through your IT system and there will be different fields in the digitised paperwork that need filling in from different departments. Nearly anything regarding an employee, for example, will need data from the HR system. And a customer request might well need a combination of information from marketing, sales, finance and the company’s CRM tools.
Like any chain, one poor link can hold up an entire process and the team behind it may not be aware of the problems they are causing further upstream. Hence, when the IT department becomes aware of a bottleneck, the typical advice will be to ask the people in the function where the system is slowing up to account for what is going wrong. However, if, as is likely, the problem is being caused by poor data flow from elsewhere within the organisation, they are unlikely to be able to help.
The good news is that IT can help to unblock those bottlenecks. It is their role to stand above the silos and understand processes the organisation undertakes, or at least have someone appointed to the role of being able to map the intricacies of all the different processes.
How to find them
It’s easy to imagine that finding a bottleneck within an organisation would simply be a case of putting through some dummy requests and see where they hit a snag. Unfortunately, the complex nature of seemingly routine, yet hugely important, tasks makes it hard to pin-point a problem unless you start out with a thorough, in-depth knowledge or have various data sets interact to provide a finished process. There is also the very obvious issue that much of any business process requires manual handling and data input, which can make identifying and fixing a bottleneck even more complicated.
Many organisations may opt to bring in consultants who can help the CIO map out and manage the complex, intertwined flows of data to allow the IT function to get on top of processes. This is not just a technical exercise, although understanding complex systems is important. It also involves surveying staff throughout the different functions to understand how they work and where they feel there is room for improvement. A fresh pair of eyes can be beneficial in helping to streamline processes and establishing where the snags in the system may be, as well as potentially providing new tools to oversee and manage each business process.
How to fix them
Finding a means of prioritising important work is a crucial first step in avoiding bottlenecks and allows a company to move from internal friction to championing the customer. An invoice that is not due for a month, for example, is obviously far less important than the paperwork to push through a mortgage for an imminent house mover. By knowing how to prioritise documents and processes, organisations can find bottlenecks are avoided because not all work is treated with the same urgency, avoiding the IT equivalent of traffic jams, which do not let the ambulances through.
Ultimately, though, this area is where the CIOs and their teams can come to fore and help deliver on a business need through providing an improved service. Instead of leaving it to the individual ‘owners’ of each data set to iron out issues they may not be aware they are causing, the IT department needs to assume the responsibility. They have to take control of how data flows around the organisation and ensure there’s someone who has the overall, macro view so they can pinpoint where problems may lie.
Unblocking information bottlenecks should be a priority for CIOs of organisations trying to gain competitive advantage by offering faster services than their rivals, fulfilling orders a day quicker than the nearest competitor or simply making sure their accounts are up to date and not causing anguish among staff, contractors and suppliers. And the first step to achieving it is assuming responsibility rather than blaming other teams.