Community, Activity, Environment

My original article Community, Activity, Environment is no longer available at the original website so I am reposting it here.
The IT industry does not have a good track record for introducing new things. Projects fail, products don’t fit, results are unexpected, users are unhappy. “People Process Technology” is a useful model to help us do better, but it gets ignored more often than it gets applied. The IT Skeptic suggests redefining it to new terms will improve its acceptance. If we apply it more, we should have less IT failures.

The model “People Process Technology” has been a popular one for years. It gives a fine insight into where to set our priorities in any IT innovations such as new applications, new ways of working, or new technologies. I am unsure of its origins (I would love to hear from any reader who knows). It goes back over a decade in the software engineering world. There have been several variants including my own described in a previous article People Practices Things.

It says that when we are planning or designing or doing anything, we should consider the people, the process and the technology. And – I like to add – in that order! This means roughly equal attention and effort, not passing lip-service.

It is quite extraordinary how often this rule is honoured in the breach rather than the observance – how it is ignored. Attune yourself to the model, and then apply it to everything you read: proposals, emails, memos, articles, websites, forums. You will be amazed how often IT people leap straight to the technology:
• If we buy this it will fix that
• The problem is that there is no monitoring tool
• I’ll code a fix
• We need a form / database / spreadsheet to track it
• We could build a system to do it
• The errors are creeping in because the screen is designed wrong

That should be no surprise I suppose, for a number of reasons. We are attracted to this industry because we like technology. It is easier to blame objects than people. We know more about how to fix technology than how to fix process. Technology is more tractable than culture.

If only we stuck a People Process Technology poster up in every office the problem would be solved. Having it on the wall would remind people to apply it, and if they see it every day eventually they will come to believe it. Maybe not (unless of course the poster has an animal on it – apparently that makes posters work).

So how do we get IT people to grok this model? How do we make it second nature to apply the model generally?

Perhaps it is the wording of “People Process Technology”. “People” is a very vague word that does not invoke much association. “Process” is a big turn-off word for many in IT (and a source of fascination for a weirder minority including the author). And “Technology” is their loved one put last in the list, dismissed.

So we could try changing to words that convey the intent better and carry less baggage. I would like to expand the model to CAE: Community Activity Environment. These words generalise it more: they make it more widely applicable than just the IT world - it applies to any innovation. I think it also makes it clearer what we are talking about. Finally, it avoids the PPT acronym, which causes confusion with one of Microsoft’s uglier contributions to society - PowerPoint.

CAE: people acting on things.

Get the right people with the right knowledge and skills and the right attitudes and morale. To do this, change the people through development (training, coaching, mentoring) and cultural change. Sometimes you have to resort to that other strategy: “If you can’t change the people, change the people”.

A good community copes with badly designed or documented processes. They stop bad practices. They know and seek out the right activity.
Get the processes matured (in the CMM sense) so that they are repeatable, documented, measured, managed and optimised. Get good practice generally. Make the activity sensible, efficient and effective, and in the best interests of the organisation.

Good community and/or activity will overcome the environment. They cope with bad facilities, tools and materials: they work around the deficiencies, exploit the strengths, and look for improvement.

Get the right environment to make the activity better and the staff happier. As the community and activity improve, needs are defined and opportunities identified to improve the environment: tools to make process more efficient, better raw materials, better facilities and documentation for staff...

Cutting against the grain

Good community can deal with poor activity and/or environment. Good activity can deal with poor environment. Fix them (or at least start fixing them) in that order: it does not readily work the other way. Good new tools or instructions or components will sit unused until the processes and practices that use them are changed to take advantage of them. Those new activities won't happen until the community changes to accept and adopt them.

It just might be that changes in the environment can be the starting point to drive change into activities and into the community. We see this hope when management buy a new Service Desk product in the hope that it will introduce ITIL into an organisation. If the whole exercise is approached with most of the focus on the community and the activity, not on implementing the software, then this is possible. (But it is seldom the case: the tool gets installed and the rest is supposed to happen by magic osmosis. TAMO: then a miracle occurs.)

A new tool does give a reason for change in process, but it is an unhealthy reason: “we have to change to this way now because of that new software” instead of “let’s do it this way because it makes more sense and gives better results and fits how we want to do things round here”.

People just might change their culture because of the new technology: “I’ll learn this tool because MOM looks good on my CV and I’ll do it this way because MOF is widely respected and I’ll focus on customer service because Microsoft say it is the right thing”… um …

There is a saying about do something twenty-something times and it becomes habit: change the behaviours and the attitudes will change with time. There is good evidence this approach works. For the recalcitrant or recidivist staff this can be a useful tactic. But the people you change will not understand or own the reasons why you are making the changes. The underlying principles will not become part of the culture of the organisation.
These bottom-up changes might happen, but it is the hard way – it is cutting against the grain. The activities will change to suit the quirks and deficiencies of the tool. The people may accept the activity changes but they won’t take them to heart, and the changes probably won’t stick. Things are not changing for fundamental reasons.

Fundamental change

We can make superficial changes fairly readily: we can put lipstick on the pig. But these changes may not deliver what they seem to promise, and they most certainly will be on a shaky basis that means they are unlikely to last long. If people don’t believe in their culture, they don’t expect it of others and they don’t pass it on.

If a culture is superficial, it does not influence activity: processes slip back to something easier or to what people really think they should be. When change to process is required, the changes will not be informed by the right fundamental principles. Our initial intent will become corrupted over time. And we can just imagine the kind of purchases that will be made for technology, facilities, and product designs.

Alternatively, if we focus on community change initially then the people themselves will drive the activity improvements, and those improvements will identify the changes needed in the environment. Get the people right and you’ll get the best activity improvements. Get the activities right and you will identify the optimum environmental improvements.

[Author’s note: have you spotted the logical inconsistency in this article? If the model is not gaining acceptance, then changing the wording is fixing which aspect: the people, the practice or the thing? What is really needed is some serious evangelism of the model within the industry. ITIL is the biggest (or at least the noisiest) game in town right now. ITIL has moved from a focus on things in version 2 (it defined the processes as objects, as documents, not how to execute them) to practices in version 3 (how to do ITIL as a lifecycle). We await a people-oriented version 4: how to put ITIL in place including how to introduce the ITSM culture. Or maybe a totally new people-oriented framework will arise to go beyond ITIL in transforming IT.]


So "people" don't act on PPT? :)

Your observations on "people process and technology" being thrown about a lot and in practice ignored are spot on. But reading the article I found myself thing that people are going to resist, or ignore, a new and unrecognisable formulation. Then I see in your footnote that you've spotted this concern!

I think p/p/t is a fine concept (I would just like to add information to it, but that's more about coverage than about getting the concepts to be remembered and actually used ... and it breaks the rule of three).

I think the solution getting the p & p dimensions to be considered more effectively lies elsewhere than in changing the terms. Perhaps in bringing business complaints closer to the people who make the technology decisions. Perhaps in giving the continual service improvement process (philosophy) supremacy over all the others. Perhaps in delivering ITSM capability much more rapidly than in the 'traditional' rfp - implementation - customisation - testing - training - live cycle that focuses on the product.

IT is the people

Yes you are right. What I never brought out clearly in the article was that people are never gonna change the terminology, but by proposing the change i hoped to provoke thought...

Book #2 is about to publish. Book #4 is in the design stage: He Tangata, IT is the people. I will devote a whole book to trying to get IT to be people-centric instead of toys-centric .

BTW, I have found a few books around the fringes but nothing that directly addresses this. i welcome references to books on this topic please....

What about ABC of ICT

You should know the book, being one of the sources. They have these ABC (attitude, behaviour, culture) cards that I sometimes use in class, usually right after lunch to help people stay awake.


in the zone

yes you are right - it is exactly in the zone, in fact it is referred to in the book. I'm too close to ABC - I meant when i went looking I found no others

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