Why buying an IT System is like buying a kitchen

The purchasing process of buying an IT system…

I recently overheard two senior managers complain about an IT system; the conversation went something like this.

“It just seems very clunky – we have to adapt our processes to meet the needs of the system”.

“If only we could get some useful reports out of it, surely the information that we need must be in the system somewhere?”

“It cost a fortune; I don’t understand why we keep investing in IT when it just doesn’t work”.

It struck me that I have frequently heard these sorts of complaints before, and it set me wondering why expectations are falling so short when it comes to IT.

I think the problem is that when organisations buy an IT system they think it’s like buying a car. It costs a lot of money, but it works as soon as you turn it on, and you get the benefits from it pretty much immediately.

IT systems are different – just to clarify, I’m talking about large business systems, not desktop or office systems which actually do pretty much work straight away.

When you invest in a corporate system, you’re basically buying a toolkit. Generally the more it costs, the more sophisticated and flexible it is. To transform this toolkit into something productive, a number of technical and business things need to happen. Unfortunately, when people keep using the term “IT system” it is somehow seen as the responsibility of the IT Team to implement it, and the necessary business inputs are done badly, or not at all.

The consequence of this is system which falls short of expectations, and this invariably leads to the sorts of complaints I described above.

There are a number of things that can be done to change this.

Firstly, ditch the term “IT system” and start calling it a “business system”.

Secondly, explain that it’s actually a toolkit, and it won’t be a system until the necessary business work has been done.

Thirdly, make sure that responsibilities are clearly defined at the outset

Finally, ensure senior people realise that the quality of the finished product will depend on the amount of work that goes into it.

When I’m next in front of the Board, talking through a business case for a new “system”, I shall explain that the process is more like fitting a kitchen, than buying a new car and a successful outcome depends not on which system we buy, or how much we spend, but on which people are made available to the project.