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Silicon bullet syndrome

“When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For the last fifteen years or so, we have all been living this proverb. It seems like every second problem business has come across in the last sesquidecade has been that nail, and the hammer has been computers.

The silicon bulletThe following is a tale of a client, who approached me for some integration information for a new system they are having built. It covers what I tried to explain to them. To my knowledge, while the person I was talking to understood and agreed with me (and had the same ideas) they are still going ahead with the project.

The problem

The client is a commodities association. Every few years, they host a major industry event: a dinner. Association members book tables, then invite guests. The client, intent on making this event prestigious, prints fancy invitations, place-settings and a guest list.

While the event my client hosts is a great success every time, it is an organisational nightmare. Association members book a certain number of tables, then need to provide their list of guests. The deadline for providing the guest list is a couple of weeks before the event itself.

The reality is that the members have trouble providing their guests lists in time. The final list represents the global industry community, so there are visa problems to top off the other organisational issues. Despite repeated requests and provided templates, the guest lists are supplied in many forms: spreadsheets (good), e-mail (sort of OK), hand-written and verbally.

As can be imagined, collating this list (of about 800 guests) from so many sources into a database (than can then be exported as a spreadsheet and sent to the printer) is a nightmare. The problems include:

  • Illegible details
  • Duplicates (between members’ guests)
  • Inconsistent formatting (e.g. “Mr.” vs “Mr”)
  • Late submissions
  • Post-deadline changes

The proposed solution

With another occurrence of the event looming for next year, the client came up with an idea: put the process online. Make it a web-based application, so the member firms can manage their own guest lists. Members would log in to the site, specify how many tables they want (which they can change later if they have too many or too few guests), and then populate their guests’ details.

It would be a “cool” solution, demonstrating that they are attuned to the changing technological landscape.

As everything would be done online, entered details would be legible and (assumedly) correct. The system would be able to identify duplicates easily. By embracing technology, the whole process would go a lot smoother.

Asking the right question

The question I ask is this: would the online registration solution actually solve anything?

Issues with the process, headaches experienced by my client when organising this event, are symptoms. They are not the cause; they are effect. The proposed solution is a classic case of Silicon Bullet Syndrome.

What are the reasons behind this sloppy and unhelpful behaviour on the part of the members? Why do they not provide the lists on time? Why do they not populate the supplied spreadsheet?

The member, having booked a number of tables, has a couple of months in which to populate them. There is no urgency; it can wait. Also, there is no consequence for the member who provides sloppy information; they will receive a call or e-mail to clarify. This reverts all the pressure back to my client: the person whose job it is to collate these hundreds of attendees is stressed, knowing for months that crunch time will come, and only a fraction of the lists will be anywhere near complete.

The guests, who are receiving an invitation to a free event, do not consider it important to organise themselves. Yes, it may be the premier event within the industry, but if they have trouble getting a visa, or have a last-minute change of plans, it is not the end of their world. There is no investment on their part when they are first asked; they can happily leave their answer until the deadline, when someone will chase them.

Consequences of a silicon bullet syndrome

Providing a digital solution may mitigate the illegible details part of the process… assuming the members actually bother to input the names and doesn’t send the details the way they always have done. It can also be configured to look for duplicates (which could be done in a spreadsheet in seconds). It will not do anything to resolve the consistency of formatting, or to alleviate late submissions of post-deadline changes.

The system being discussed in not going to be cheap. My prediction is that a lot of money will be spent on something that only does half the job it needs to do, and creates twice as many problems as it solves, thereby making it even more of a headache.

The lesson

I fear my client will go ahead with this project anyway. My advice has been ignored. They will spend a lot of money on building a system that will be used maybe three or four times (it will be obsolete technology in a decade), to support an event that at best is supposed to break even. Negligible effort will be saved on their side managing the lists. Stress levels will only go up.

They may learn the lesson; they may not.

The truth is that the silicon bullet will not cure their problems. Only a solution that looks at the underlying social issues – one that addresses the failing processes, and the reason underlying those failures – can hope to do that. Yes, such a solution might involve a digital aspect. We can use technology to make our organisation look more “with it,” but we must do this because it is the right answer to the right question.

Let us not be drawn into the trap of thinking that there is a magical silicon bullet. There isn’t.


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