Architecture methodologies & ERP implementation approaches

I remember reading a book review in an in-flight magazine. It was on Indian architecture. A paragraph read “Unlike the Western Architect who approached the subject from a total conception and moved down to the details, the Indian Temple designer moved from both ends simultaneously. The details play a major role and affect the final outcome in a startling way creating monuments of great uniqueness.”

I liked it because it somehow related to the trade I am. I was traveling to meet a prospective ERP implementation client. I used the review in the discussions I had that day.

The way I understand the above passage is that the architect first conceives the basic design principles of the structure. This would define the look and feeling and the mood the building would create. The details in the building would need to be in line with this framework.

A pillar would have the freedom of being circular or octagonal. That’s where the freedom of shape would end. It would have to have a smooth surface; vines creeping all over would be a strict no if these conflicted with the overall conception.

There is a parallel in the ERP implementation space. Normally you need to start with the mission/vision of the organization. You go on to the organizational objectives (or you can actually start there itself). The organizational objectives can be decomposed into business unit / division objectives. There would be critical factors that have to be successful for to realize the business unit objectives. From there on you go on to define how you would measure such success. You would need to identify the information need to be able to compute these measures and describe processes to generate such information. The last two chunks are the ERP implementers’ job.

This chain is a top-down approach that most ERP implementation methodologies subscribe to. Most of these methodologies have been born in the “developed” western economic environments. The philosophy is any activity that one does in an ERP application should clearly and unequivocally relate to some business objective.

This top down approach is most often turned on its head when it comes to implementations in Indian or other “oriental” businesses. Here operational imperatives have a major impact on the organization objectives. Might be that is true in every economy but in India we are not able to manage the show properly. We start from both ends simultaneously and get caught in a bog land of scope creeps, delayed sign offs, and disinterested end users. It often results in a situation of that popular cartoon of misaligned railroad tracks.

I have inserted a picture here in this write-up but you may also have a look at the one by John Pritchett at www.pritchettcartoons.com/wrong_rail.htm.

Quality Assurance and the views of George W Bush

While commenting on the proposed House bill (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) US President George W Bush said (on March 13, 2008) that it “could reopen dangerous intelligence gaps by putting in place a cumbersome court approval process that would make it harder to collect intelligence…” (Source: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/03/20080313.html)

When I first heard the President on TV I could not help but notice a similarity between his argument and the resistance that the implementation of a quality process normally elicits. The President, it seemed, was in effect saying that he had a country to defend in these rather extraordinary times. He would not let the process prevent him from doing his actual job.

The real work needs to be done fast to satisfy the customer, all our delivery managers in the information technology industry would say. I can not let a quality process hold me up and make me miss a deliverable that has a billing milestone attached to it. Isn’t earning revenue more important than following some QA process?

The US President was not, however, challenging the existance of processes per se. There was a news item in 2007 that went like this. An US aircraft with nuclear assault capability flew over US territory without the necessary authorization. It did not have any nuclear warheads on board, but the incidence was treated as a security lapse and people lost their jobs.

The more serious the outcome may be the more stringent the processes tend to be. It seems that the probability of occurrence is not the prime consideration. In that aircraft case, it did not matter that there weren’t any war head on board. It did not matter that there exists a process of Executive approval before a missile with a nuclear warhead can be deployed.

To get back to the original thought, the President did not say that court approval processes are cumbersome and therefore impractical. What he was trying to do is argue for the acceptance of a process that would not hold up delivery of US national security. He was saying don’t create an opportunity for class action lawyers to get rich at the expense of the security of the country. Once a process is legally defined he can go and try changing it (just as his “opponents” are doing) but till the time he is successful the defined process is mandatory.

I guess the key challenge is how to balance discretionary authority with the mandatory risk mitigation measures.