Opinion

Thought for the day: Map reading

Colin Beverage  

Mapping out the workflows and processes within the organisation should be a mandatory part of every business, says Colin Beveridge

 

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As a stranger in London, if you want to take the tube from Kings Cross station to Waterloo, you consult the world famous underground map. You don’t ask for a copy of the Transport for London organisation chart, cost centre breakdown and budget forecast.

Regardless of how interesting those documents may be, they are not relevant to your immediate journey and your primary concern is the quickest route from A to B.

The tube map is the most powerful, albeit schematic, representation of the complex network of underground lines and stations and an essential aid to navigation. Even seasoned travellers depend on the map to get around and it has stood the test of time.

And yet we seem to manage without such maps in our equally complex organisations and businesses, where the only available documented insight is usually an out-of-date organisation chart.

Of course, I do understand that an organisation chart is an extremely useful tool for understanding the reporting lines and broad areas of responsibility. But whenever I start a new interim assignment I need to understand how the organisation really works and the critical touchpoints between functions and process that should receive particular attention and nurture.

With the best will in the world, even an up-to-date organisation chart cannot give us this vital information, and it never ceases to amaze me how any business can prosper without a published version of its very own tube map, showing the various workflows and functional intersections.

We blithely talk about business process re-engineering and value chain analysis, but these are little more than abstract ambitions if they are not underpinned by an easily-understood schematic representation of how information and data circulates between the people and systems that constitute our organisations.

So why don’t we do it? Why don’t we just sit down with some crayons, or our preferred diagramming software, and make a stab at drawing our very own London tube-style map to show everyone how we work together?

This is such a simple idea and yet I have never seen it implemented, anywhere.

I have seen some very complicated system architecture diagrams and even some rudimentary workflow process diagrams, but I have never seen a simple overall business map that can be used as a practical tool for navigation or, perhaps more importantly, for planning systems engineering works and projects.

Notwithstanding the obvious operational and management advantages, shouldn’t such a map be a mandatory part of every disaster recovery or business continuity plan? You would have thought so.

Maybe the insurance industry will eventually wake up to this shortcoming and instigate the necessary governance driver to prod us into action.

But until that happens, why can’t we deal with this proactively and demonstrate our value to our business colleagues by applying the unique perspective available to the IT function and mapping out the real organisation chart, the one that shows how we really do things.

And I’ll bet that the outcome will be very, very interesting reading in most cases…

Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at colin@colin.beveridge.name

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This was first published in October 2004

 

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