Mysteries of Online 2: Business Process Logic

January 30, 2009

I have been jotting notes to myself as I put the finishing touches on Google: The Digital Gutenberg, my forthcoming monograph about Google and integrated information manufacturing system. One of the notecards, which I am converting to this narrative Web log reminder, had the phrase “business processes built on faulty logic” circled in red.

I don’t know where or who used this phrase, but I found it suggestive this cold morning. The plunging temperatures have frozen the acid runoff stream and my pond. This addled goose, therefore, must sit in his nest contemplating the mysteries of online. Too keep my web feet frost bite free, some observations.

Business Processes: Formed by Chance, Trial and Error, and What Clients Demand

I remember an interview I conducted with a guru from Thomson, the French electronics firm, in the late 1970s. I had to jog my memory, but I looked at my 1979 copy of the “Managing Innovation” study, which my boss William P. Sommers sold to an innovation-challenged Fortune 50 company. I was one intellectual ditch digger on that project. The French PhD who answered my questions about innovation said something to the effect: “Who knows. We just do what’s been done around the lab here for years.” Whatever works, I suppose.


Search, content management and business intelligence–all in one modern package. Image source;


The notion of tradition and business processes is deeply rooted in most of the organizations with which I am familiar. In the older companies, the methods are captured customized machines like the “Joe Herman machine” to make nails in the Keystone nail mill. Today MBAs use Excel to whip up financial methods.  (We know how well that works.) Tangible machine or intangible method, once these constructs are in place, change becomes difficult.

Use What You Got

Using what “you got” is a phrase that I heard in the steel mill when I was 17, and I heard it last week in a meeting with an entrepreneur building a services Web site for professionals. “Use what you got” means the learnings, instincts, and tools available here and now. When creativity flashes, a business method is developed. If the method works even sort of works, the company is good to go.

Change Is Difficult

My hypothesis is that once something sort of works, most organizations in the United States don’t  to discard the method that’s in place, comfortable, and known even if that method is not flawless. Companies prefer to invest in cosmetic features and marketing programs.


How some organizations and vendors deal with online challenges. Image source:

Some assertions to consider:

  1. Most business processes are ad hoc amalgamations. Those involved use what “you got”. Some folks add learnings from the university of hard knocks. Someone hacks together a solution and it becomes concrete.
  2. Concretized business processes freeze some employees. Who wants a weapons system that goes bang unexpectedly?
  3. Changing a business process produces information excitement.
  4. Adding computer technology to a business process makes some functions faster, but the business process may generate more baloney faster.

Stepping Back

A recent Web log post by Dennis Howlett here called “Honey, I Just Blew Up the ERP” had some useful information on on my thoughts. The idea is that assumptions can contribute to lousy business processes is spot on. The author points to a problem in double entry bookkeeping. If one uses traditional accounting methods, one can get a bank into financial trouble. The “fix” is (and I am simplifying here) is to shift from traditional accounting to ” counting to objects”. In my opinion, I do not think that the certified and chartered accountants are going to shift to counting objects. Some accountants for Satyam may tally jail time, but that’s as close as most of these fine souls will get to a revolution.

I do agree that assumptions influence business methods and rush those methods toward calcification. Mr. Howlett raises the idea of systems and methods that respond to inputs. Whether one wants to view the inputs as coming from a social system or from smart software, the idea is interesting. The business process adapts; it no longer does the same stupid stuff with every cycle. Conceptually this is a pretty interesting idea.

Adaptive Business Processes

Here are some thoughts I want to capture about adaptive business processes. Remember, you won’t know how something is done or when the rules changed:

  1. The person who owns the smart system controls the game. Who will know when the owner tweaks the smart system to deliver an advantage to the owner. The software is smart. The owner is smart. The customer may not be as smart. 
  2. As people become accustomed to crappy service like fewer mail delivery days, the likelihood of forced change decreases. An example is a SharePoint / MOSS licensee who knows that the system’s search performance is lousy, but the cost, knowledge, and effort required to juice SharePoint share is too much work.

Change Becomes Really Difficult

Habit resists change. A system that people get used to is comfortable. Most people have habits and routines that are tough to change.  e

What about Online, Search, and Information?

One of the mysteries of online is why new services have so much trouble sustaining a user base and then expanding that user base without losing yesterday’s customer today? Most Web site entrepreneurs use existing  business methods and processes. The assumption is that these methods will work online as they did in the non online world. 

Search in a general sense has been trapped by tradition for about 25 years. In the present economic climate, some of the search vendors now have to change. The changes will be traumatic for two reasons. Some customers may resist change. Second, the outfit trying to move a new direction may leave the customers behind. Also bad.

Search vendors can index the heck out of text. Now the users don’t want to find a list of files containing the word
“smith”. Users want answers that fit seamlessly into the existing and what may be deeply flawed business systems and methods. Think about how search systems integrate into flawed business processes.

For example, some content management systems find themselves in a really fragile space. On one hand, organizations are struggling to deal with the notion of Web marketing, Web sites, and Web content. Many CMS have to operate within muddled business processes. The CMS itself in most cases is a collection of half backed business methods that the system designers hacked together. Merging CMS with search is going to be an interest experiment in change.  Some big name search companies are tackling this opportunity as I type these ruminations. Exciting for sure.

Stephen Arnold, January 30, 2009


4 Responses to “Mysteries of Online 2: Business Process Logic”

  1. sperky undernet on January 30th, 2009 7:32 am

    After reading this over a couple times, I became inspired to rediscover Thomas Szacz, who seems to make sense of the “aberrations” that become “normal” – in this context of business practices and ways of problem-solving.

    Szacz talks about “having the courage and integrity to forego waging battles on false fronts, finding solutions for substitute problems — for instance, fighting the battle of stomach acid and chronic fatigue instead of facing up to a marital conflict. Our adversaries are not demons, witches, fate, or mental illness. We have no enemy whom we can fight, exorcise, or dispel by “cure.” What we do have are problems in living — whether these be biologic, economic, political, or sociopsychological.”

    Oh – so Enron was indicative of something about the wider system and “creative accounting” became, it appears, widespread if not mainstream and that dictates the value of say business and financial information which you can still pay for but it ain’t likely worth its weight in bytes or pixels on your screen or even printed out on dead trees. ERP and CMS are likely behind the curve for a similar reason.

    Further, in Szacz’s words from his book Faith in Freedom (with credit to Sheldon Richman) – “Imitating real scientists, economists and psychiatrists use (pseudo)scientific language, but cannot dispense with the use of ordinary language as well. The scientific-scientistic language of economics is mathematics, of psychiatry, neuroscience. That is for show. The real action lies in law and politics: economists and psychiatrists solicit politicians to enact the kinds of economic and psychiatric policies they favor. . . . [T]he functions of both economics and psychiatry are, properly speaking, theological and political. Both deal with beliefs and values; both offer explanations of how people live and recommendations of how they ought to live; and both use force and justify its use by professional rhetoric.”

    That must explain why the huge growth industries of drug dealing and cybercrime are not listed in the Occupational Handbook. Or why “The Wire” isn’t Public Policy 501.

    The bottom line has to be that deeply flawed and aberrative practices point to what’s just under the surface. Ask Rod Blagojevich. Or the Archbishop of Canterbury. I’m not libertarian enough to connect the last two sentences.

  2. Stephen E. Arnold on January 30th, 2009 7:35 am

    Sperky Undernet,

    Spot on, Sperky. Post any time. When I read your comments, I think, “Sperky is on my wave length.”

    Stephen Arnold, January 30, 2009

  3. sperky undernet on November 8th, 2009 7:51 am

    Update on “The Wire” taught in four university courses
    1, Harvard – to be taught by Sociology Professor William J. Wilson
    2. UC-Berkeley – film studies
    3. Middlebury College – film studies
    4. Duke – literature course that uses it to examine phenomenology and 21st century
    visual media.

  4. Xanax. on November 24th, 2009 6:12 am


    Xanax. Xanax valium. No prescription xanax. Xanax withdrawal symptom….

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