Document Driven v Data Driven

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about forms. Why forms? Forms give us fascinating insights into that way that organisations work.

A Life of Forms

We are surrounded, some would say inundated, by forms:

  • Banking runs on forms.
  • Insurance wouldn’t survive without forms.
  • Most organisations have thousands of ad hoc forms for various diverse purposes.
  • One of the worst things to happen in some organisations is that a situation arises for which there is no form.
  • Visit a medical professional and somewhere within the dialogue a form will become necessary.
  • Subscribe to any service and forms will be used as part of the contracting process.
  • Start a new employment and you are likely to spend much of your first day completing forms.
  • Our birth and our death are accompanied by forms.
  • How many times a day do you complete a two-field form in order to gain access to some technology.
  • Interact with a government organisation and a form will be required.

Sometimes these forms are online, web page, or even forms on mobile devices. There are still, however, many situations where forms are completed with a pen. How many hours have you spent trying to complete a pseudo form that was sent to you as a Word or PDF document.

Document Driven Business

There are many PowerPoint decks, Excel spreadsheets and Word documents that are in essence forms. They are created from a template that sets the titles and contents of each slide/worksheet/section. The person completing them is expected to say certain things in certain ways, just like a form.

  • This first slide has the title on including the reference number, person presenting and target date.
  • The next slide has the required content on and only this content.
  • The following slide will explain what it is you are going to do.
  • The penultimate slide will outline the business case in the supplied table.
  • The final slide will contain the risk register, using the supplied table headings.
  • No other slides may be added.

It’s a form, isn’t it?

A Form to Transact

Each of these form-types exist to support a transaction:

“Once you have completed sections 1 to 5 and 8 of the loan application form we will proceed to the next phase of you application.”

“You are required to complete a tax return of which sections a to e are mandatory.”

“We’ll proceed with your project once you have provided the project initiation template document.”

The boundary of the transaction is defined by the form, without the form nothing moves forward, or backward.

This way of working produces a number of effects:

  • Over preparation – in order to make sure that a transaction can complete documents tend to be over-worked. Many hours are spent making sure that every detail in a form/document are correct to a level of detail that is not required to move onto the next phase, but everyone strives for perfection to avoid rework at all costs. A small amount of over-work is compounded as a process is worked end-to-end. Imagine how much work goes into producing a set of 40 document? Add a little bit of over-preparation to each of them and the amount of effort being expended is huge.
  • Over-stating – The over-preparation of documents often includes over-stating, where things that aren’t required in the document are stated in the document “just-in-case”. The problem with this superfluous information is that it becomes part of the record and is then used by people who make decisions despite its heritage and trustworthiness.
  • Point-in-time perspectives – The information in the form/document was mostly correct at a particular time on a particular day, but that’s all that can be said about it. Any perspective that is taken on that document is locked into the context at that time. The information in the document isn’t being refreshed, it was completed, a transaction took place and now everything within the document is, at best, history. Yet, people will continue to refer back to it as information way beyond the valid life of the data contained within it. The reality is, even before the document is concluded the data within it will be out of date.
  • Action blocking – A form/document represents the end of one activity and the start of another – a phase-shift. The next phase can’t start until it has received the information from the previous phase. Even if an element of the next phases has all that it needs to proceed it can’t until the transaction has been agreed. Consider how many actions are expected to be undertaken following the transaction of a 100 page document? How many of those actions could have safely been undertaken way before the transacting of the document?
  • Phases based on documents – The definition of a document as the point of transaction means that production of the document often becomes the definition of the phases/stages of an activity. This way of planning has little to do with the amount of effort involved, or the value being produced, it just represents a transaction. An activity that only exists to produce a document is a bad activity.

Data Drive Business

Let’s turn our attention to data-driven activities.

The document has been with us for thousands of years, but we no longer need to work at such a coarse level. The information that is placed into a form was not generated by the form. A form is just a place to consolidate information that already exists elsewhere. When you are asked about your date-of-birth in a form you are simply recording information that has existed, for some of us, for many years. So why not link the data directly with the intent for which it is needed. Why bother placing a date of birth on a piece of paper when one system could ask another system whether I’m older than 18 and get the correct answer back.

There are situations where data isn’t enough and a set of information may need to be brought together to tell a particular story. Imagine a design for a network topology, the design may be the first time that it’s been outlined. This isn’t to say that in this situation a document is required, it’s just to highlight that an intermediate step from current state to future state may be required to fill gaps in the data. Even in this network topology example a diagram with meta-data is probably sufficient to communicate the change being proposed and for people to agree to transact. Once the change has been implemented the diagram is no longer required because the current state information becomes the record.

Taking the network topology example even further, the need for a human-readable design demonstrates a gap in policy and understanding. If the change could be codified in a way that a policy mechanism could understand and assess, then the change could have taken place without the need for a diagram. If, as an example, an application needs to add more resources to the network, the network would respond on the basis of the data provided and the policy defined. Likewise, once those resources are no longer required the policy engine would turn the resources off. All of this would happen before someone has filled in half of the “necessary” paperwork.

Our job, as humans, should be to assess and define the required actions for the exception, for those situations where data and policy is not sufficient for a decision to be made.

Time for Transformation

For much of the life of IT may applications have been little more than form replacements and that has given us some productivity gains. In many ways we are only just at the beginning of a transformation from a world driven by documents to one driven by data  This will require a profound change in the way that we think and act.

Organisations that continue to rely upon forms (including apps that are replacing forms) will be overtaken by the machines.

Header Image: This is one from a recent morning walk along the lanes near my house. I’ve always loved the shapes of tree skeletons in the winter.

“Requirements simply don’t exist…

“Requirements simply don’t exist. A requirement, by definition, is something required: the basis for a contract, a way of managing an external service provider, part of a deal where a buyer promises money and a contractor promises to deliver something well-defined. But within an enterprise, what does it mean for something to be “required”? A requirement purports to express a necessity, but where could this necessity come from? In a publicly held company, maximizing shareholder value might be a necessity, but how could a particular feature of an application be necessary when there might be many other ways of maximizing shareholder value?”

Mark Schwartz – A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility

Header Image: A spring sunrise taken on one of my pre-work walks. This was one of those cold and crisp days when sunrise often seems so vibrant.

How long do we need to keep transposing for?

I’m currently sat in one of those cafes that are now ubiquitous across the UK – the burgundy one, not the green one.

Next to me the conversation is of exam results and their meaning.

In England we have had a transition, in recent years, from a system in which the classification was given in letters to one that is given in numbers.

The letter system went from A* to G with A* being the best and F the poorest, a C and above being regarded as a pass.

The new numbers system goes from 9 to 1 with 1 being a low score and 9 being the best score. A 4 is now a Standard Pass and 5 is a Strong Pass.

This is where the conversation comes in, because the teenager on the table says: “Well I don’t need to worry about passing because I already have a 4 even before I’ve sat my exams.”

The adults accompanying him both look at each other puzzled: “What’s a 4?”

I’m pretty sure that one of these adults is the teenagers parent, and yet they are still confused by a system that has been being rolled out for a couple of years.

And so commenced the transpose from one system to another.

“So is a 4 like a C?”

“Sort of, it’s a pass.”

“What grade are you aiming for?”

“I’m hoping for an 8 or 9?”

“But you’ve already got a 4?”

“An 8 is better than a 4”

“So is an 8 like an A and a 9 like an A*”

“Sort of”

This is the point at which the teenager gives in and chooses to keep it simple for the parent, who’s clearly still confused. The reality is that there is no direct correlation – see the chart in this link for more information.

The adults’ frame of reference is one scale, the teenager’s is a different scale. The only way the adults can understand is by transposing, the teenager can’t transpose because they only know the new system.

We do all sorts of transposing in life, to get from one frame of reference to another. Somewhere along the line we sometime switch from one to another and sometimes we don’t. And so I wonder, how long does it take for us to switch? What are the reasons for us sticking with an old, out of date frame of reference? What are the things that help us switch to a new one?

What’s wrong with being in the middle of the Bell (Normal) Curve?

It’s that time of year when we are encouraged to plan our year ahead and to become exceptional. Around us everything has become hyper-aspirational, with advertising selling us one-of-a-kind dream holidays, whilst also encouraging us to go extreme and add in another medium sized pizza for £5. Fitness and health-food adverts are everywhere with pictures of extraordinary people in them. None of us are being urged to be normal, why would we want to be normal?

Whenever I use the word normal I imagine a normal curve. We are surrounded by normal curves, you may know it as the bell curve, they are the same thing. These are the graphs that start at low, progress a little before rising sharply to a plateau, they then drop just as sharply before again levelling out at the same low level at the other side – making the outline of a bell.

You may not realise it, but these curves are found in many, many places. Many human dimensions follow a normal distribution – height, ring finger length, shoe size.

In reality most of these examples are not truly normal; it would be more accurate to describe them as approximately normal. This means that they are close enough to normal for us to use the normal distribution mathematical model to discern meaning.

What meaning can we discern from a curve? What wisdom can a simple line give us? There are many, but I want to return to the example that we started with and that pressure to step out from the mediocre – to differentiate ourselves from the normal.

If the normal is a bell curve, and the chances are it is, differentiating ourselves means moving to the edges of that curve. Most of the time exhorted to move to the right of the chart, to be exceptionally better than the pack.

I feel like we need an example. I have no evidence for this, but I suspect that the amount of reading that people do is approximately a bell curve. A few people read a lot, but not many, most people read a reasonable amount, and then a few other people read very little. The chances are, you are in the middle of this curve, I can say that with confidence because most people are somewhere in the middle, that’s how a normal curve works. Mathematically 68% of people are in the middle bit marked A below and 95% of people are in A+B:

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The leaves 5% of people in those tail bits at either end. If you want to be at the top of the curve, to the right, you need to recognise that the top only represents 2.5%. But the curve tells us more than that, it tells us that to move out of A we need to be twice as different as those within the middle of A, if you want to move out of B then you need to be at least three times different.

(Sorry for the terribly imprecise definition above, if you want to get more precise then please feel free to investigate the 68–95–99.7 rule)

These numbers show us just how hard it is to be truly exceptional, step back from the edge just a small amount and your are back in the pack with the other 84% of people. So you do need to be confident that driving to be truly exceptional is worth it, which it probably is in a few areas of life. For most things, though, I’m sure that it’s a much better for us to aim for the centre of the curve, to be normal.

We’ve already seen that being truly exceptional in one particular area is very difficult to achieve, it requires a huge amount of effort, and all of that effort drives to specialisation. Let’s return to our reading example, if you are going to be an exceptional reader then you are going to dedicate all of your time and energy to reading which means that you will have limited energy available for other pursuits. Your dedication to reading will mean that you unlikely to be a exceptional painter or even a writer. You may even struggle to be a normal painter or writer. It’s a trivial example, but I think that many of us would be far happier and more fulfilled in our lives if we weren’t seeking to be extraordinary and were more focused on being normal across a wide spectrum of areas.

While I was preparing this post I came across an article by Venkatesh Rao who argues, in a far more extensive way than I have, for something very similar:

What comes after 2020?

Over recent years organisations have been defining their medium-term and long-term planning with a target for delivery of the year 2020.

Some examples:

Some of these go back 10 years, others are more recent. The master of the 2020 target has to be Elon Musk who has made numerous promises along the lines of “by 2020” over the years.

Why 2020?

Decade years – 20, 30, 40, 50 – sound significant to us. They remind us that we are passing a milestone from the 20-10s to the 20-20s. There’s little point, in most contexts, to plan out 50 or even 25 years, but 10 years hence sounds like a period of time we can imagine and “long-term”.

Also 2020 has a particular resonance because of the link with eyesight testing and 20/20 being the definition of perfect eyesight. It’s interesting to see how many of the descriptions of 2020 strategies have included a play on this – “2020 vision”, “2020 in focus”, etc.

(It’s worth noting here that 20/20 doesn’t actually represent perfect eyesight, and is an American standard, in Europe optometrists use the 6/6 standard, but even in the UK that doesn’t have the same resonance in the public mindset 😊.)

For those of you only just getting used to it being 2019 already it’s probably not helpful of me to point out that 2020 is only 11.5 months away which doesn’t leave you much time to get your 2020 strategy implemented.

What are you planning for?

This is where I’m intrigued, now that 2020 is so close, where are you going to pitch your long and medium-term strategy now? Are you going to go large and aim for 2030, which seems like it’s a long, long way away. The year 2025 is a disappointing compromise even if it is the year has Elon Musk picked for humans on Mars (though they would have to leave in 2024 to get there in time). There doesn’t appear to be any benchmark year in this race. The year 2020 has been such a magnet for this kind of target that anything else beyond it feels like a pale imitation. What are you planning?

Header image: Today’s header image is of Formby Beach on an amazingly sunny and calm Christmas Eve 2018.

Office Speak: “laser-focused”

Where to start on this one? Perhaps context is the thing that’s required and perhaps an (fictitious?) example will start to give that context:

“As a team we are laser-focused on resolving your issue with our service.”

or:

“As an organisation we are laser-focused on delivering to the strategy that we outlined.”

The basic idea being portrayed is that a person or organisation is “focusing” their attention/talent/energy/etc. on a particular issue. The use of the world “laser” is meant to portray a number of sentiments like high-energy, straight, bright, intense and pointed.

If you search for the term laser focused you’ll see that most of the results are focused on maintaining attention:

  • 13 Ways to Develop Laser-Like Focus
  • How to Stay Laser-Focused on Your Goals
  • 3 Strategies That’ll Help You Laser-Focus on (Almost) Anything at Work
  • Why Laser Focus Leads to Success

Focus is clearly a common problem for which we all need 13 ways, 3 strategies, 7 tips and 4 daily rituals 😏, but I’m in danger of loosing focus, so must continue.

As a sentiment statement I kind of understand it, but I have a problem with the metaphor being portrayed – a pinpoint-narrow focus rarely solved anything

The reality is, if you are going to solve an issue it’s rare that a narrow focus is going to get you to an answer. Good answers tend to come from an open attitude. If you are trying to find something in a darkened room it’s more productive to fill the whole room with a small amount of light than to have a very bright light on a small dot.

Focus is what’s required to get anything done, the bit I struggle with is the laser-like-ness of the word picture.

I’ll leave you with a bit of a technical question: can you focus a laser?

Header Image: Today’s image at the top of this post is from the approach to Rossett Pike looking along the Mickleden and Great Langdale Valleys, with the Pike of Stickle to the left of the image.