ECOSYSTEMS BREAK DOWN THE WALL OF TECHNOLOGY
Since the first stone tools were made millions of years ago to create efficiencies in food preparation, humans have been on an unrelenting path of technological innovation. There are two overarching goals of technology: 1) to increase the quality and quantity of our output and 2) to decrease our workload. On the first goal, our success is nothing short of profound. As to the second, well, let’s just say we’re getting there.
When a new piece of software is purchased, it is with the goal of performing a task more efficiently, producing a higher-quality output, or doing something new that you couldn’t do before. Word processing applications are some of the most ubiquitous pieces of software out there, and it certainly falls into our first category of increasing the quality of our output, but not the second—that of decreasing our workload.
Word processors replaced typewriters—no more whiteout, no more paper feeding, no more missed key strokes if you type too fast. We should have been able to produce the same product in less time and accomplish less work. So, what went wrong? Yesterday’s “good enough” feels outdated today, and all sorts of peripheral tasks emerged that became necessary to keep the core technology of the word processor functioning.
No longer “good enough,” the standards for quality increased. The time saved by the new word processor was quickly eaten up by higher standards for presentation. The user could now format with different fonts, margins, borders, and themes. The bar was raised by technology—you can’t just type your RFP in 10-point black font and go home for the day. Also, the complexity of the technical infrastructure that makes your word processor work is vastly larger than that required for your typewriter. We need electricity, an Internet connection to update the software, experts to run those updates, and a network of other users who can make use of your electronic document with their own machines. Instead of creating a straight path to our two goals, technology seems to move the goals to the far end of a foggy tunnel.
Until recently, most software has been “siloed” in a way that makes each user’s journey through the fog a solo effort. We use the software independently. My data doesn’t talk to your data; my templates aren’t your templates. Two users using the same word processing application have to independently format their documents, so, while they both ended up with a superior product in the end (versus a typewriter), they spent more time and money getting there.
What about a much more complex piece of software like the financial module of your ERP? Is that accomplishing our two goals?
Your financial accounting software probably allows users across the agency to input, view, and manipulate data on demand. You gain accountability for transactions, transparency in an audit, increased accuracy, and so many more robust possibilities.
But what does it take to keep this software alive? It takes network technicians, database analysts, vendor support personnel, user training, and don’t forget the tremendous cost of the hardware. Modern software technologies continue to accomplish what the word processor did—increasing the quality and quantity of output but NOT reducing the workload.
In fact, they do the opposite. Instead of spending our time in the manual input of everything, we spend hours staring at the screen trying to figure out how to do one thing, we get paralyzed when something doesn’t work right, and we hit a wall and all work stops. Thirty years ago, the I.T. department of a city was probably two people in a mainframe room, and they were mostly forgotten by the rest of the city.
Today, any given I.T. department is probably the largest support center in the agency and unquestionably the most business critical. I.T. departments are so large, they are no longer departments; more and more are becoming internal service funds, as their financial requirements for future I.T. capital investments are so large. No longer lost in a dark room, the I.T. department keeps your financial software up and running as well as all the other systems that use that financial data.
What happens when you need that financial data from your ERP to submit a grant reimbursement request, to create user billings, or to create your cost allocation plan? You have three separate pieces of software for each of these tasks that do not talk to each other. Do you know how to access it? You need to pull down that financial data and re-enter it … three times. That data is behind a wall and only useful to a certain user-group for a certain purpose. You need to export, manipulate, and re-enter the data over and over and over. YOUR DATA IS TRAPPED INSIDE A WALL OF WIRES!
All these wires are tangled. If you think of it as each person using an individual software application (like a GIS system, agenda management system, project management system, cost allocation plan system, grants management system, ERP, etc.), each person represents a wire. There are probably hundreds of systems in an agency working independently every day and not one of them talks to another one. Each of these wires get tangled and create a wall that blocks us from overall efficiency. How much duplication of data and effort is used in these separate systems? Do you even know what information is in another system that you could use?
How can we connect the wires and break down the wall to create efficiency and connectivity within the agency? That is really the next step of technology—data collaboration and integration between different software systems that are no longer hosted and maintained locally. Creating ecosystems of software that allow for one login, data sharing between systems, and collaboration of effort by unlocking the systems to work together, that is the new phase in technology.
Your financial data can be entered once into the ERP then ported to all the other places across the city where that information is used. You can be in your grants management system looking at what grants are available to you and, at the same time, your indirect cost (that you knew nothing about) can be surfaced in your system, so you can make better decisions on how to meet the expectations of the grant. Duplication of efforts is eliminated, contradictions in data from multiple segregated tracking systems is no longer a concern, and the wires have been connected to surface information that is pertinent to what you are doing today.
We are finally beginning to see these silos of data smashed open and the figurative wall of wires becoming pathways. Cloud-hosted technologies eliminate the need for server rooms and downtime for software updates.
When the systems talk, we will finally accomplish both of the overarching goals of technology—increasing the quality and quantity of our output AND reducing our workload (a reduced workload means cheaper operations!). When it’s in the cloud, your software is available wherever you are and, when your software talks, the agency’s data is there for whoever needs it. It is no longer YOUR data; it becomes THE data.
So, how do we achieve this with ecosystems of technology? In the nineties, when there was the big Silicon Valley boom and tech companies were a dime a dozen, the end goal for the tech companies was to be the first to market and the one who created a specific application that revolutionized how we did almost anything. No two companies were talking to each other to see how the systems could talk to each other. The goal was to remain a silo and hope that no other company stole their idea. In order for us to move to the next phase of technology and break the wall down, it is now the responsibility of the technology companies to start collaborating and to start creating ecosystems. With technology today, it is possible to build tunnels to connect one system to another and create a way for users to access the information on one system from another.
In the nineties, it was the individual’s job to move technology to the next level, because they actually had to learn it and use it. Technology was really only limited by the users. It was necessary for people to change their ways and be open to learning new ways of doing things through technology. I think we can all say, as a majority in society, that we have done that. But now that everyone is on board, we all have our smartphones, emails, applications, etc. Technology is everywhere. Now it is in the hands of the tech companies to move technology to the next level.
The only way we will move to the next level of technology is to connect the wires and allow the data to flow from one to the next. This not only brings the information together, it brings the people in the agencies together. The more one person can understand the information of the next person the better the product and the less duplication that is necessary. This will leave us more time to do what we set out to do in the first place—improve the quality and quantity and reduce our workload, which will better serve our communities, which, let’s be honest, is what we set out to do in the first place.
So, all technology companies out there, let’s get talking, let’s get connected, and let’s move technology to the next level that truly accomplishes the goals we originally set out to achieve: 1) to increase the quality and quantity of our output and 2) to decrease the amount of our workload, and we can do that through the use of ecosystems.