Building an information system that works is an activity that is far from certain. Even experts sometimes run afoul of the technical and project management challenges in system development — a fact underscored by American Airlines and its partners’ recent failure to deliver the Confirm travel reservation system. Failures like these are surely regrettable, but much more disturbing are failures that occur when people do not use systems that work well technically.
Our belief is that technically successful, but unused or underused, systems cost U.S. businesses millions of dollars each year. A company that has paid for an unused information system has made a very bad investment: it has not solved the problem or exploited the opportunity for which the information system was intended; it has wasted all the resources that went into developing or acquiring the system; and it has forgone the benefits from alternative uses of these resources. Thus, preventing unused systems can make a crucial difference in whether firms achieve real payoffs from their investments in information technology.
Many potential causes of systems that are not used are preventable. Unused systems are generally attributed to one of two factors: “software usability” — often called user-friendliness — and “implementation” — the efforts of line managers to ensure that the system is used. While software usability and line managers’ behavior in implementing it are very important matters, many systems’ lack of use is actually caused by a third major and preventable factor — bad business system design.
Our argument is simple: the way in which organizations build systems can be seen as a business process and examined using the same principles of business process reengineering that have achieved radical performance improvements in many operations. One of these principles holds that optimizing a part of a process — a functional specialty, for instance — can result in less than optimal performance for the process as a whole. This suboptimization can often be seen in manufacturing firms when technically excellent engineering departments produce new product designs that are not easily manufacturable.
Similarly, many information systems have not been designed for implementability. In extreme cases, no amount of managerial attention and effort can succeed in bringing about system use. Because use is not built in, these systems never achieve their true potential for improving organizational performance.