Business IT systems – a help or a hindrance?

07 April 2022

This article first appeared in Director magazine - the bi-monthly magazine of the Institute of Directors (Northern Ireland)

IT systems have been an essential element of every business for very many years.  As the capabilities of technology have developed (at a dizzying pace), and as the trends in delivery of software have evolved (“mainframe” > “on-premise servers” > “cloud”), businesses have found themselves continuously making significant investments in IT systems.

This has been especially so over the past number of years as governments force more and more compliance activities onto digital platforms, and businesses have had to adapt or even implement new IT systems to be able to meet government’s compliance requirements.  Initiatives such as “Making Tax Digital for VAT” and “Real Time Information” are two of the more recent examples, and the next wave (“Making Tax Digital for Income Tax”) is fast approaching.

The costs of business IT systems have also reduced over time.  50 years ago, only the largest corporations could afford “mainframe” computing, but today even the smallest business can access world-class IT functionality via the Internet – often for a comparatively modest per-user monthly fee (although this can escalate rapidly as the number of users increase).

However the question posed in the heading has been consistent right across the ages of business computing.  Do the IT systems in your business really deliver the value you need from them, or are they a source of some (or even significant) frustration to management and/or users?

To put it another way:

  1. are your IT systems crucial elements of your team – always delivering the information you need on demand; or
  2. do you and your staff find your IT systems to be recalcitrant, awkward, difficult and requiring numerous “work arounds” – especially by using spreadsheets?;  or
  3. perhaps your view of your IT systems is somewhere between these extremes – your systems do a reasonable and consistent job, but you suspect you could get more value from them?

In my experience, the success or failure of IT systems most often lies with the design and execution of the underlying business processes.

Your IT systems, together with your staff, deliver the processes which your business needs to perform in order to carry out its day-to-day activities, from sales, operations and purchasing to communications, payroll and compliance.

If your business processes are clearly defined, well organised and integrated as far as possible, then it is likely that your combined people and IT system resources will deliver them smoothly and seamlessly.

For example, if your business process(es) concerning employee applications, HR on-boarding, IT provisioning and payroll are holistically designed, then it should be possible to put in place an IT system which supports a smooth pathway right from the start of an employee application process all the way through to ongoing payroll and HR record processing.  Your recruitment team, your HR team, your payroll team and your IT team should be able to co-operate and co-ordinate the entire journey from application to regular employee, seamlessly supported by one (or multiple integrated) IT system(s).

Conversely, if your business process is not properly designed and if your recruitment, HR, payroll and IT teams do not co-operate – or are not willing to compromise in order to collaborate – no IT system can resolve these problems.

It is easy to purchase an IT system – and there is no shortage of system developers queuing up to sell businesses IT systems for every conceivable business need.  But if you have not:

  •          clearly defined your business process; and
  •          decided what IT functionality you require to support that process; and
  •          made sure that the system you are buying delivers the required functionality; and
  •          made sure that your staff are “bought in” to using the new system and collaborating and, if necessary, compromising in order to better collaborate;

then project failure is highly likely.

Time and again I see difficult business process problems being addressed simply by buying another IT system, without properly thinking through the underlying business process.  Inevitably a couple of months later, the IT system which had previously been the “solution” is now “a significant problem” and the recriminations are well under way, with the IT system always the primary recipient of the blame.

In conclusion, think business processes first; think IT systems second.