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Does the organization play together? (Part 5 of 5 – Potential Solutions)

BY: Collin Quiring

In part four (click here) we talked about some of the technology constraints, or freedoms, that can be realized that either hinder, or help, an organization present a unified approach between various departments.  An organization doesn’t become divided by disciplines from day one.  In the early days of a small organization there is usually a lot of interaction and “everybody knows what everybody is doing”.  As organizations grow they can easily become more divided by their disciplines due to a number of normal reasons that make perfect business sense.  Is that wrong?  No, it is not wrong, that is the way that organizations become specialized and hopefully more efficient and effective.

The key is in finding the balance between specialization of each department in their methods and in allowing the organization as a whole to work together.  And, to clarify, this isn’t just about technology and making that work together.  There is a strong technological component but this is also about processes.  The business must have processes that work together.

Pragmatically, how does that work?  Well, it starts with upper management.  A common goal or portfolio perspective needs to be known by all departments.  Then, each department needs to understand how their part of the puzzle makes for the completion of that goal.  And, each department needs to have the mindset that they are contributing to that goal and that they need to work together.  From that mindset comes the ability to work together in the two main areas – technology and processes.

The technology piece:

We understand how some companies get to the point where they don’t have the internal support for technology that they need (it takes too long to get things implemented or there are too many bureaucratic steps to get something done).  In those cases, it is very understandable that a department or division of an organization goes out and gets their own solution.  They need something done quickly and they don’t have the time or manpower to go through all of the steps required to get it done through their organization’s IT department.  To help resolve this issue though there should be some sort of framework within which each department must adhere.

For example, if an organization is a Microsoft-centric technology organization then one of the requirements for every department should be that if they don’t use the IT department they only use/purchase/implement technology products that can easily interface with Microsoft-centric technology.  Perhaps, if the IT department can’t meet every other department’s needs then they also allow for some integration to things that they didn’t implement (not necessarily at a deep level but at a high level – perhaps allowing one set of Active Directory so that users don’t have to sign into each individual product with a unique id).

What about organizations that are deeply ingrained in the myopic mindset already?  There needs to be a starting point.  Find the one or two points where departments have to go through manual processes or other painful processes to move data between each other and determine how that can be better done.  Part of the pain is created because departments just hand off data in the way that their system hands it off and the receiving department just has to figure out how to get it into their system.  Automation between departments reduces overhead and the potential for errors caused by manual intervention.

The business process piece:

As we discussed in previous parts of this series, departments often become organized around disciplines and often have many experts within that discipline.  The issues that habitually occur when this happens is that departments begin to develop their own processes and procedures – sometimes at the expense of the organization as a whole.  This is why organizations often try to create even more departments that oversee the organization and that help with the interactions between departments.  This can be a good solution as well but sometimes just ends up creating yet another department with their own objectives.

Just as there should be a technology framework to ensure that pieces of technology can interact there should be a framework for how the business operates.  Departments should not be allowed to go off and create a solution when ANY PART of that solution affects the way work flow or data flow inputs or outputs affect another department.  We should EXPECT that departments are looking not just internally to themselves but also towards other departments.

For example, if a department has the requirement to move a physical folder around with physical pieces of paper in it that are used for their work they can devise any system they want.  They can identify the folder in any way and they can have it physically move around any way they want – perhaps a designated person at a designated time or perhaps each person moves the folder when they are done with their work.  However, if the department has to hand off that folder at the end of their work process to another department which has to know the contents of the folder (what pieces of paper are in it) then we have new requirements and both departments should work together to decide the method of hand off.

Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where we often see a breakdown.  Often, both departments do not communicate to each other so we end up with the first department doing it their way and the second department creating a system to record what folder they get, what is in it and so on and then they somehow disseminate that information to their own department.  Then, this becomes the ingrained part of “how we do it” and over time it becomes accepted process.  And, it leads to errors, duplicative effort and a lack of tracking for the organization.  To find out the status of a folder requires finding out which department has it and then understanding how that department tracks it.

One of the easiest solutions for this is for increased communication.  It does require cooperation though as well which sometimes requires upper management to step in when two departments won’t play together.  If department two were to explain to department one their needs and department one were to explain how they track and move the folder now then perhaps a compromise could be reached.  The compromise might be as simple as only affecting the touch point – the point of the hand off.  But, it might involve department one adding some tracking information that they share with department two.  So far, this example has been about paperwork, but the same applies for the data if it were in a computer system.

Technology and Process:

In the end, individual departments must be looking out for the organization’s best interests as well as their own interests and that isn’t always easy.   And, upper management must not allow departments to become their own myopic entities.  Along with that, upper management must not set up incentives that make departments work against each other.  And, the departmental management of each department must know how they fit into the organizational picture and why it matters.

One last example:

I worked with a company one time that talked the talk about everybody working together but they gave incentives to each department to act alone.  And, upper management didn’t worry about how each department worked together or if they worked together – just as long as sales numbers were high.  This resulted in massive waste.  Because the Sales department was incentivized by sales dollars (not profit and not about “what the organization is selling now”) they did whatever they could to make a sale.  This meant on more than one occasion that a sale was made for product that had been discontinued with no stock in inventory.  So, manufacturing had to make something that they weren’t prepared to make and the purchasing department had to buy too many materials (because they had to buy in bulk) for this product.  And on it went throughout all the departments with each of them being at the mercy of each other due to their own incentives and processes.

If there had been a common framework, a common portfolio, a common method of communication and a common message from upper management then these sorts of things wouldn’t have happened.   Working together isn’t always easy and sometimes the experts in one discipline or department do know what they need better than anybody else – but taking just a moment to look at the entire organization can save money, time and effort!  A common framework allows for departments to have freedom to determine processes that are best for them but it also allows the organization to gain benefits overall and keeps open the possibility to minimize waste and expense.

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