In a previous blog post on feedback control, I described how, to be successful, organizations need to be capable of fast response in times of change. I also described how effective feedback systems within an organization can allow them to achieve this without over-reacting. It turns out that this has clear implications for the design of information systems. In particular, recent trends towards big data have encouraged the idea that if it can be collected, then it should be collected. Through the deployment of evidence-based recruitment and management development processes however, we have discovered that, when it comes to collecting data, it is possible to have too much of a good thing!
About fifteen years ago, after spending over twenty years in the field of corporate reconstruction, working primarily with for-profit organizations, we began to add nonprofits to our global roster of clients. It was at this time that we also began the development of Talent Chaser, our flagship evidence-based business management platform.
As part of this development program, we undertook research into Client-Centricity and how this impacted workflow practices. During this research, we discovered many situations where the need for Client-Centricity came into conflict with the need to create standardized workflows. We established that this problem is particularly prevalent in the area of customer relationship management.
The Case of the Social Services Organization
One of the organizations we studied operated in the area of Social Services and specialized in programs helping people with particularly difficult social problems including:
(1) Individuals who were transitioning out of prison
(2) Homeless families
(3) People with Mental Health Issues
(4) Substance abusers
This organization had developed a world-wide reputation for delivering evidence-based processes. Managers from similar organizations frequently came from all over the world to learn best practices from an organization that was universally considered to be a leader in its field.
We first became involved with this organization because in spite of its impressive reputation, it was suffering from a high level of employee turnover.
When we took a close look at the way programs were being run however, we observed that, contrary to our initial expectations, they appeared unorganized. As a result, we formed the opinion that improved workflow systems would add much needed structure to their day-to-day activities. However, over a period of time we made many visits to each program and gradually came to the realization that the apparent chaos was a direct result of the priority given to Client- Centricity. We came to realize that this was at the heart of how this organization had become a recognized leader in its field.
It turned out that each person they were serving had a unique set of problems. Additionally, many of these “Clients” needed urgent help. In order to meet this need, program managers placed reactivity above proactivity, responsiveness above planning. As a result of these observations, we reached the conclusion that, while some system improvements were in order, great care would need to be taken to ensure that over-systemization didn’t occur.
This observation had a major impact on the way in which we designed the Performance Appraisal and Task Action Planning Module within Talent Chaser. In order to create an evidence-based approach to recruitment, we knew that we would need to provide each user with a set of tools that would enable them both to monitor continuously the efficacy of our job applicant screening technology and feed their findings back to us.
To achieve a methodology that would work well in practice, while not over-systematizing user workflows, we adopted an end-user design approach in which managers in these programs worked closely with us during the design phase. This approach evolved into the fully-fledged end-user design process. The result is a platform (as opposed to a system) that allows each manager significant flexibility to handle performance appraisal and task action planning in ways unique to their individual needs, while at the same time, providing the standardization necessary to facilitate data comparison and mining.
Management Information and Workflow
As described in the case history above, care has to be taken when deciding how to improve the collection and distribution of management information. In a world where the power of technology gives us enormous choice, we need to be particularly careful to identify what is important. Workflow matters.
The best information systems are not necessarily the ones that collect the most information but rather, those that cause minimum disruption to the workflow while collecting and distributing knowledge that is really useful.
Where this is done properly, the result can release employees from the drudgery of information overload and create working environments within which employees can think creatively about their work. Information systems that balance the need for flexibility and the need for structure can help any organization improve both talent retention and productivity.