Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Paperless, ha! or, Your Seams are Showing

One of our clients recently had to back off yet another paperless initiative. We are often asked about this very thing: why is it so hard to go paperless, even here in the early days of the 21st century? We thought that this particular instance is a good illustration of a general problem.

In this case, there are many computer systems involved. There is either no integration between these systems or rather modest integration. Here is the process in question:

  1. The customer either uses a third-party app to create an order, which is printed out, or writes directly on a piece of a paper, or uses the preferred app which creates an order, transmits it electronically and prints out the paper.

  2. The paper order is brought to an intake center. In theory, the paper is just a security blanket and the order ID brings up an electronic version of the order. The intake is done, which creates an order in the system used to process the order.
  3. The results of intake and the electronic order arrive in the processing system. The order is processed. The resulting status is sent yet another system, the one which supports status lookup.
Sounds a bit more complicated than one would like. There are more and different systems than one might expect. But historical accident and practical considerations make the process a bit more complex than theory would dictate.

In theory, the integration across systems should be real-time and seamless, which would make the number of actual systems in play almost irrelevant, so long as they all work together. Poor theory, it never gets its way in the IT world.

So why does the paper still exists? Well, consider a real-life scenario from the very recent past:
  • The customer creates an order for items I1, I2, I3, I4, I5
  • The intake system does not understand I5, leaving I1, I2, I3 & I4
  • The processing system does not understand I4, leaving I1, I2 & I3
  • The status system proudly displays an order for I1, I2 & I3
  • Irate customer calls demanding to know what happened to I4 & I5
  • Baffled customer support has no idea those items ever were ordered
  • The customer is very dissatisfied
  • We are called in to help investigate and find item rejections in logs
  • The client sees how this is happening, re-instates the paper order
So the paper copy of the order is once again riding along with the rest of the material. Now when the same thing happens, but the process can compensate.
Instead of an entry in an interface log somewhere, the intake clerk can see that item I5 is an old code, for which there is a new code and the receiving clerk can see that I4 conflicts with I3 and that the customer must have meant to order something else entirely.

In this case, the paper allows the original intent to be accessible at every stage to all the interested parties, in a form everyone can read. If the integration of the various systems was perfect, was "seamless," then there would be no job for the paper to do.

Alas, the integration is imperfect and the seams are very much in evidence. So the paper stays, for now. But pity the poor systems implementer who is supposed to fix this problem, because that job is very hard. Electronic orders arrive in the background; there is no User Interface for systems interfaces and there is no user looking when the order is being processed. So how best to flag orders with issues? Whose responsibility is it to fix the issues?

In our practice, we find that logging is good, flagging is appreciated, but documentation is king: we put the error message as comment on the order so that, at every stage, everyone can see what happened. Specifically, the users who understand the process can see the messages, instead of sys admins who rarely can do anything about business process issue.

We suspect that so long as system integration has seams, critical processes will either have paper or regular failure. So don't sell that paper company stock just yet.

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