The Complexity Factor

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Business in the Face of Complexity

The greatest challenge to every knowledge worker is the dramatic increase in complexity. That complexity shows up on computer desktops littered with applications that don't work with each other, a deluge of information sources, rampant growth in policies & procedures, increased regulations and compliance, and an unceasing degree of change. In fact, in a recent Delphi study of 1030 knowledge workers more than a third of respondents told us that they need from 11 to over 20 windows on their desktop when they are dealing with their most complex situations. At the same time, knowledge workers are being tasked with being faster, more accurate and more efficient. In this pressure-cooker environment dealing with complexity is not an option but a core competency that we all need to master.

When you are involved in the most complex situations how many windows do you have open on your desktop?

One often quoted study from the Standish Group, a research outfit that tracks corporate IT purchases, has found that 66 percent of all IT projects either fail outright or take much longer to install than expected because of their complexity. Among very big IT projects -- those costing over $10m apiece -- 98 percent fall short.

That's an amazing statistic given that most organizations have relied on technology to solve the problem, but that's like relying on gasoline to douse a fire. Investing in layer upon layer of technology to reduce complexity results in just the opposite, costing organizations millions.

The problem, according to Mark P. McDonald, group vice president at Gartner, is that "For many enterprises the question [of complexity] is just strange, as they do not think about complexity, its impact on customers or costs. They treat the business symptoms of complexity with ad hoc solutions that create benefit but accrue complexity."

To address the issue of desktop complexity a new category of solutions is being developed and is catching on with dozens of organizations that want to leverage and navigate through their existing investment in technology. We believe this approach, called Business Process Guidance (BPG), is a bellwether for organizations that will succeed in the future based on their ability to handle the increasing demands of complexity, change and compliance.

BPG is built around an entirely new approach to complexity that is not simply another layer technology but rather an entirely new way to look at how we approach the problem of complexity by navigating through it faster and more accurately without disrupting underlying business and technology systems.

BPG is an on-demand tool for delivering information to users about a task when it was needed. This "moment-of-need" is critical for many knowledge workers who are dealing with situations that require the coordination of multiple disconnected information sources. For these employees there really is no such thing as a standard process. Everything they do, every customer call they take, every questions they have to answer can take them down a circuitous route that can rarely be predicted.

Trying to address this sort of challenge with traditional approaches that use a variety of other approaches such as ERP or CRM Systems, or business process and knowledge management will never adequately keep up with and support the process -- because there really is no process!

You Can't Kill Complexity but You Can Conquer it!

The idea behind BPG is similar to the idea behind a GPS -- to navigate complexity on the fly so that you can focus on the task at hand -- rather than fumbling with instructions and maps. A GPS does not change the pathways to a destination, it doesn't eliminate one-way streets and dead ends; it simply identifies the fastest and most efficient path based on your goals.

Now imagine the same principle applied to knowledge work. Here's an example; A customer support rep has to deal with an irate customer with concerns about their account information, third party billing, warranty, policies and procedures, and regulatory compliance. You can envision the poor CSR with several screens open on their desktop, a "policies and procedures manual," and perhaps a connection to an outside partner's application as well. How does the CSR know which path is the fastest and most efficient path to use in order to respond to the customer? Oh, by the way, did I mention that the rep is also tasked with up-selling customers?

It's not difficult to put yourself in the shoes of our hypothetical CSR. In some form we've all been in situations where the information available exceeded the time allotted to make a decision. But for our CSR that time is measured in seconds, perhaps in minutes, but certainly not hours or days.

Using training, FAQs, and help systems only adds to our CSR's problems by prolonging the path to an answer. The proof is in the fact that fewer than 50% of all customer support calls are resolved in one call. But it's not just customer support that suffers. Delphi research shows that the typical knowledge worker spends 15% of his or her time searching for answers to process questions during the course of the day. This isn't research but basic info about how to do their work.

Instead, let's say that we left all of the underlying applications and information sources as they are but built a real-time map to allow the CSR to navigate through them based on certain rules about the situation they are in. Again, think of a supercharged GPS which takes into consideration time of day, road conditions, real time traffic, and even your style of driving in order to get you to your destination in the fastest and safest way possible.

Our CSR has certain skills, the customer has specific requests, and each piece of information and each application needed to address those requests has prescribed ways it supports finding an answer. So there is always an ideal path to follow, it's just not always obvious. BPG makes that path obvious, quickly and accurately.

How BPG Works - Desktop Awareness

In practice BPG actually observers what you are doing on your desktop, the applications you have open, the fields you are using on forms, and combines that with the knowledge of your role. It then provides customized guidance through the options you have based on all of this context awareness. The complexity is still there and, in fact, it can and will grow, but it will be invisible to anyone who uses BPG to navigate through it.

What makes the BPG approach unique is that it can be applied to any combination of applications and information sources to define the way in which they interact together. Virtually every application on your desktop has metadata that describes what it is and how it works. By extracting this and adding a bit of intelligence BPG can quickly infer what's going on and build a navigation guide on the fly. This comprehensive navigation guide can also change in real-time as required by the actual experiences of users. Think of this as away to capture Incremental Social Improvement in a process. This prevents the roll-back that frequently occurs with other business process solutions which map out the way a process should work but are unable to continuously guide someone through incremental changes in the process that occur in real-time.

Given the fact that BPG does not interfere with the current technology or information systems in place the payback is impressive, in most cases measured in months. In addition there are substantial benefits for employees and customers as measured in terms of decreased frustration and increased satisfaction.

Looking Forward

Knowledge work has become a critical part of our economy. Yet the rate at which the raw materials of knowledge work, namely applications and information, have increased relative to the tools we have to manage them is creating an absolutely untenable situation. To ignore the tremendous lack of innovation in how knowledge work is actually performed would be like Orville Wright at the helm of an Airbus.

BPG is a necessary part of a long term movement towards greater support for knowledge workers under the gun to produce more with less. It is also a foundation for change that will enable organizations to grow with limited resources and budget, rather than just another expensive layer of technical complexity.
In short, it's critical for the future of knowledge work and organizations that need to support an ever malleable business structure, which can take the shape most appropriate to the challenges of the moment.

Enterprise Desktop Navigation Systems (eDNS) represents a broad set of tools intended to guide knowledge workers through increasingly complex enterprise desktops.

A variety of solutions have evolved to deal with this from passive HELP systems to proactive Business Process Guidance solutions, which are aware of the activity on a user's desktop and guide the user through the process at hand by providing a listing of the most likely options and alternative available to the user.

We believe that the levels of complexity and the need for navigation tools to help knowledge users will both increase dramatically over the course of the coming years. While BPG is still a nascent category populated by only a handful of vendors, we expect it to grow rapidly, and also expect existing vendors to begin to pay closer attention to the challenge of eDNS.

About the Author

Thomas M. Koulopoulos is president and founder of Delphi Group, a Boston-based management and advisory firm, and was also Founding Executive Director of the Babson College Research Center for Business Innovation where he was responsible for some of the world’s leading research and thought leadership on the topic of Business Innovation. He has authored eight books and his articles and insights appear frequently in national and international print and broadcast media.

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