Why technology is not enough

Organizations get the most out of technology when they also adopt new management practices

In the early 1990s, when information technology was beginning to spread as a way for organizations to get their work done, the business process re-engineering movement was also spreading. Two common phrases associated with BPR were often applied to IT: “Don’t automate, obliterate” and “don’t pave the cow path.”

Both phrases reflect the idea that an organization is unlikely to improve productivity by simply computerizing existing ways of doing business. Instead, re-engineering advocates argued for re-examining the work. Rather than take a process with 46 steps and automate it as is, see if there is a way to streamline it and reduce the number of steps to, say, six.

That approach might have been valuable even without automation, but it is necessary if an organization is to take full advantage of IT applications.

In the beginning, the approach was applied mostly to routine activities, such as processing applications or placing orders. I recently came across a scholarly paper in the January 2010 issue of the "Journal of Labor Economics" — a highly regarded journal for economists who study the issues of workforce productivity and behavior — that added another layer of understanding to the role of IT.

Luis Garicano of the London School of Economics and Paul Heaton of Rand studied extensive data from 1987 to 2003 on police departments’ practices in IT management. Their goal was to gauge the connection between the expanding use of IT and police performance, as measured by crime clearance rates and overall crime rates.

Their findings, published in an article titled "Information Technology, Organization and Productivity in the Public Sector: Evidence from Police Departments,” are fascinating. After controlling for other factors that influence crime, the researchers did not see any difference in the performance of police departments based on their level of IT use.

What did make a difference was IT combined with new management practices. When agencies bought new technology and began using performance data to set goals and measure progress and when they adopted a geographic-based command structure, clearance rates went up and crime went down.

That is a variation on the old “don’t pave the cow path” mantra as applied to higher-end, more mission-oriented activities.

Furthermore, the findings reinforce the longtime recommendation that chief information officers be included in agencies’ program discussions. If IT is off in a world by itself, it is unlikely to deliver noticeable performance improvements for agencies. However, when IT changes are combined with other, complementary management improvements, better performance occurs.

For that to happen, program managers need to know what IT can offer, and CIOs need to understand programs well enough to know how they can contribute.

I urge CIOs to take these research findings to heart and make sure program managers and those concerned with agency missions understand that you need to be involved in program planning — not for your own power or self-aggrandizement but in the interest of delivering better mission results.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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Reader comments

Fri, Mar 5, 2010 Dave

This is a no brainer for anyone younger than 45... the only thing fascinating here is that someone actually got paid to study the topic! Look at the Dept of Defense, which takes just as long to publish a document as it did in 1980... because the same paper-based processes and mindset still rule the roost. Look at our public schools, many of which put computers in the classroom that only gather dust, because they were never integrated into the curricula. Even today, the DoD will buy new software because a vendor shows a General something... even though the very same capability exists on our Desktops, but we aren't allowed to use it!

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