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Can IT Solve All Business Problems?

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In a complex business ecosystem, where constraints and bottlenecks are common, can IT solve all business problems? Pujan Roka reminds us that despite complex software solutions, business problems don't just go away; new problems evolve out of changing business and process needs.
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I was once involved in an order management project. The time was the late 1990s—decades after the introduction of enterprise data interchange (EDI). Many companies, including mine, still used paperwork to handle orders. The process was pretty cumbersome. Paper order forms were distributed to potential buyers. The buyer had to fill out the order form and mail it to the specified postal address or drop it off at a nearby drop-off center. When order forms were received, the orders were entered into the order processing system by a data entry group.

Many of us wondered why we were still doing paperwork when electronic order processing was becoming very common. "Business problems are not letting us go electronic," we were told when a colleague stepped up to recommend paperless order management. Eventually, though, the business stakeholders finally decided to start an electronic order management system. Instead of distributing papers, they wanted IT to host the electronic version of the order form on a server. (The electronic version was still a word processing document, but that was an improvement over a paper form.) We would point buyers to a URL and have them return forms to an email address. This was a no-sweat task for IT. In no time, the order form was available online.

As the URL was publicized, more and more orders were placed via email. The result was instant karma. The cost of paperwork went down drastically. The turnaround time for order processing went down drastically.

The business was ecstatic.

That is, until the associated new costs were noticed: system downtime, data anomalies, new processes.

Many forms were not filled out properly; we had to contact customers who submitted incomplete orders. Personnel had to be allocated to enter orders in the order processing system.

Customers started calling to ask questions about the order form. Sometimes the questions were simple: "Where do I enter my address?" Sometimes not so simple: "What's the expected date of order delivery?"

Going electronic had created a new process. It was easy to establish a service-level agreement (SLA) for a handful of orders. But it was difficult to predict the turnaround time for a massive number of orders. Not everything (people or process) was in place to support electronic order management end-to-end. The electronic order form reduced paperwork and the processes built around that paperwork, but the processes yielded from the electronic order processing eventually equated to a cost. Cost-cutting turned out to be a double-edged sword.

Years after the electronic order form was launched, the cost of order processing hadn't gone down by a large margin. The rudimentary electronic order form morphed into a complex order management system, powered by a multimillion-dollar vendor software. The order management group morphed into an order management department. Despite complex software, business problems didn't just go away. New problems evolved out of the changing business and process needs.

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