Driver’s Seat — How Software Normalization Can Drive Process Improvement

Travel, business, and family obligations have interrupted regular blogging–many apologies but thanks for hanging in there and continuing to read the existing posts.

Over the past couple of weeks I have taken note of two issues that regularly pop up: the lack of consistency in how compliance is applied by oversight organizations within both industry and within government, especially in cases of government agencies with oversight responsibility in project management; and the lack of consistency in data and information that informs project management systems.

That the same condition exists in both areas is not, I believe, a coincidence, and points to a great deal of hair-pulling, scapegoating, and finger-pointing that would otherwise have been avoided over the years.  I am not saying that continual process improvement without technology is not essential, but it is undoubtedly true that there is a limit to how effectively information can be processed and consumed in a pre-digitized system compared to post-digitized systems.  The difference is in multiples, not only in the amount of data, but also in the quality of the data after processing.

Thus, an insight that I have observed as we apply new generations of software technology to displace the first and second wave of project management technologies is an improved ability to apply consistency and standardization in oversight.  Depending on where you stand this is either a good or bad thing.  If you are a traditional labor-intensive accounting organization where you expect a team of personnel to disrupt the organization in going through details of a paper trail, then you are probably unhappy because your business model will soon be found to be obsolete (actually it already is depending on where your customer sits on a scale of digitization).  If you are interested, however, in optimization of systems then you are probably somewhere to the positive on the scale.

Software companies are mainly interested in keeping their customers tied to their technology.  For example, try buying the latest iPhone if you have an existing plan with a carrier but want to switch to someone else.  This is why I am often puzzled by how anyone in the economics or political science professions cannot understand why we have new technological robber barons with the resulting concentration in wealth and political power.  One need only look at how the railroads and utilities tied entire swaths of the country into knots well into the 20th century prior to anti-trust enforcement.  The technology is new but the business model is the same.

The condition of establishing technological islands of code and software is what creates diseconomies in processes.  The costs associated with multiple applications to address different business processes increases costs and reduces efficiency not only because of proprietary idiosyncrasies which create duplicative training, maintenance, and support requirements, but also because of the costs associated with reconciliation and integration of interrelated data, usually accomplished manually.  On the systems validation and oversight side, this lack of consistency in data drives inconsistency in the way in which the effectiveness of project management systems are assessed.

Years of effort, training, policy writing, and systems adjustments have met with the law of diminishing returns while ignoring the underlying and systemic cause of inconsistency in interdependent factors.  Yet, when presented with a system in which otherwise proprietary and easily reconcilable data is normalized to not only ensure consistency but quality, the variations in how the data is assessed and viewed diminishes very quickly.  This should be no surprise but, despite the obvious advantages and economies being realized, resistance still exists, largely based in fear.

The fear is misplaced only because it lies in the normal push and pull of management/employee and customer/contractor relations.  Given more information and more qualitatively insightful information, the argument goes, the more that oversight will become disruptive.  That this condition exists today because of sub-optimization and lack of consistency does not seem to occur to the proponents of this argument.  Both sides, like two wrestlers having locked each other in a stronghold that cannot result in a decision, is each loathe to ease their own grip in fear that the other will take advantage of the situation.  Yet, technology will be the determining factor as the economic pressures become too hard to resist.  It is time to address these fears and reestablish the lines of demarcation in our systems based on good leadership and management practices–skills that seem to be disappearing as more people and companies become focused on 1s and 0s.

Note: The post has been modified to correct grammatical errors.  Travel took its toll on the first go-round.

Apolitical DoD Budget Blues

Still going through the Pentagon’s 2015 Defense budget, along with other sections of discretionary spending. First impression is that the emphasis is on research and development in lieu of production. This places that much more pressure on project managers to get the most value from the dollars being spent and to do so in segments that provide deployable systems.  The basis for this thinking goes back to analyses from World War II and other major conflicts where there were opponents of roughly equivalent capability.  For example, during World War II Germany and Japan had the technological advantage in deployed units, especially in tanks for the Germans and aircraft for the Japanese, and scored early victories against the Allies.  The United States had a small standing military force but a robust technological base.  Sustainability costs were higher among the Axis and the tradeoff of resource commitment between operations/maintenance and R&D favored the former.  By the time 1943 and 1944 rolled around the newer systems that the Allies deployed, particularly given the U.S. industrial base, was key in the destruction and total defeat of the Axis.  The key now is to still meet worldwide commitments given the evolving role of the United States in world geopolitical stability, while expanding flexibility and maintaining our technological advantage.  Major Power disagreements like the current one in the Ukraine highlight the limits of military power since nuclear weapons still make major conventional conflicts unthinkable, thus the QDR seems to be focused on the threats that can be realistically addressed.  I’m not wild about the personnel benefit and pay cuts, which always seems to have a misplaced place in the heart of the Beltway insiders–must be their patrician bias against the common working man and woman.  “Supporting the troops” is easy when it doesn’t cost anything.  Both the left and right are already playing partisan football with the budget with the usual suspects taking usual positions but, in the meantime, I’ll defer the early scoring to Lawrence Korb and company over at the Center for American Progress until I have something important to say.