September 19, 2018 -

The “Tech Stack” Trap

Summary: There are numerous ways that workers in today’s digital world wind up using the wrong tools and systems. But it all adds up to one thing: Their jobs are harder. There’s friction and lost opportunity along every step of the way, distorting not only the process, but also the outcomes.

I’ve been the dismayed observer of workgroups being gifted digital tools that are totally wrong for their jobs… and I’ve watched in amazement at the lengths these same users will go — out of frustration — to create clever hacks and workarounds.

My perspective comes from a career in the creative industry (here, and here) prior to moving over to tech/telecomm — but the problem pervades every industry.

One cause is a lack of structure… actually, no structure at all. Users confront a mess of scattered applications (email, spreadsheets, files on a network drive) that evolved and mutated over the ages. I jokingly call this a grassroots tech stack — cobbled together by people just trying to get through the day. Definitely not the result of any systematic approach.

Another cause might be a tool that simply has the wrong focus. Software systems acquired for some specific original purpose are then deployed across the enterprise in ways that would make even the creators of the system cringe.

At my place of work, we use an industry-standard software bug tracking system to manage our creative projects — from intake, project management, and task assignment, through creative development to stakeholder approvals and delivery to the offshore content integration team. Across town at one of New York City’s most esteemed museums, my friend there tells me that the exact same software is used for all kinds of amazing things including… when you need to ask for a new light bulb. And also sometimes for bug reporting.

(Check out my post on configuring Jira for creatives.)

I witnessed an accounting system that was designed for tracking inventory in a factory environment dropped onto an entertainment organization where nothing happens in a straight line — and especially not in the content production arm of the business where chaos reigns. The system didn’t just land with a thud. Howls of rage were registered on the far side of the Hudson River. Peace was eventually restored once Stockholm Syndrome set in.

We got here… how, exactly?

The reasons for a mismatch between whatever digital tools a company takes on, versus actual user needs, are many and varied.

Legacy systems: Software systems or tools have been in use for so long that the working teams accept it as normal or even think it’s great. While the business changes around them, the downtrodden users clack away at these legacy systems, falling farther and farther behind the times.

The False God of Standardization: Desktop software is sometimes viewed as a fixed one-size-fits-all tool or suite of tools. In reality, software designed for one business purposes might not be so awesome for other specialized tasks. Isn’t it obvious that there’s virtually zero overlap between the power users of Microsoft Office and the power users of Adobe Creative Cloud? Meanwhile, the organization erects obstacles against anyone who might want to explore alternative tools to find different and possibly better ways of working.

When IT and Biz Go Shopping: The groups in charge of technology or budgets can be isolated from the front lines of the business. As a result, they don’t understand the users’ unique needs or idiosyncrasies of the working groups. In the name of “single platform” or whatever, they’ll deploy a system that’s 80 percent good enough. But totally miss the 20 percent causing all the headaches for the end users.

Scope Creep: Tech systems can be acquired for one specific initial purpose and then spread across the company becoming adopted by unrelated teams. The new teams have to adapt their processes, and hack the tool, just to make it barely functional.

My grandfather, a master craftsman and cabinetmaker, said: “Never use a wrench if you need a hammer.”

The right tool for the job

Digital tools, whether desktop or server-based software, need to be purposefully designed for the activities and needs of the business units and working groups.

This reminds me of a bit of advice from my grandfather “Mac” Gepford — master craftsman and cabinetmaker: “Never use a wrench when you need a hammer.” (And he always took care of his tools, carefully brushing and oiling each one before putting them away at the end of every day in his workshop.)

In other words, if the tools don’t help… they hurt — dragging the work down and adding friction and distortion to every process. This was true in cabinetmaking. And it’s doubly true of modern digital tools.

End-users, rise up!

Business units and working groups must learn to exert their influence when it comes to the digital tools they use. They need a seat at the table during the discovery and evaluation phases, before the software or systems are purchased. In a better world, they would be able to go out and acquire their own tools. But the best way to make this shake out in your favor is if you have the means and the fortitude to develop tools of your own. This is the hard but also the glorious road.

(By the way, I’m a big champion for building such tools — because so often the use case is unique, or the available vendor solutions just haven’t caught up to the needs.)

Do you want a fighting chance at getting the tech you deserve? Then you’ve got to understand the players within your organization — find out who acquires the technology, and why. I’ll be sharing a few thoughts about the dynamics in this space, in an upcoming post.

Bottom Line: Technology that’s foisted on users can lead to a culture of disempowerment and acceptance of baked-in friction. Hacks are invented just to get the work done — but it distorts the process. Do I have to say it? This is not good.

Published by: Kevin Gepford in Creative Ops, Digital Tools, Process Optimization