I read recently that NASA is still flying aircraft from the 1940s as part of a long-term science program. This is surprising on two levels.
On the one hand, these aircraft are still airworthy. Is it that they built them to last in those days? One hardly thinks so, given what they were built for. Without being too morbid about it, World War II bombers weren’t really designed with a view that they’d still be operational many decades later.
The other surprising thing is that they are still the right platform for whatever NASA wants to do with them. (Satellite calibration in case you’re interested). It seems incredible that more modern aircraft haven’t been able to do the job better. But apparently not.
That shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
That’s an adage that has served the modern world pretty well so far. Reliability is an important factor in so many things. We all like to fall back on the familiar and the trustworthy, and we even have a place for it in our lives, it’s called the comfort zone.
IT application owners know this all too well. Systems that work reliably, day in and day out, are the bedrock of information infrastructure and after the blood, sweat and tears of implementation and learning curves, we want to get our money’s worth from years of faultless operation. The idea of switching to something new just because it’s better must be supported by some other very compelling reasons.
But our NASA aircraft are not the perfect analogy for business software.
You see, the thing is, what NASA needs is to get some altitude for their calibration equipment. These old workhorse planes are just a means of getting some advanced kit up closer to where it’s needed. And THAT kit is definitely not 70-plus years old. The job the aircraft are doing remains absolutely unchanged. Replacing the fleet with machines that get the equipment up there smoother, faster and in greater comfort is fundamentally not needed.
On the other hand, in business this is precisely what we need to be doing. We might think the tasks remain the same year on year. But they don’t. To continue to drive business forward, we not only need to do things smoother, faster and in greater comfort (the latter to service an increasingly mobile and in-demand workforce), we also need to do different things, new things, innovative things.
Sure, it ain’t broke, but what it is, is fixed. Today’s incumbent information systems have let us standardize, normalize and control our working practices. But now, they’re stopping us go beyond that.
Think about it. Are you actually more productive today than 10 years ago? Using any measure you like, can you honestly say you get significantly more done in a day now than in 2008? By the way, if your measure is the number of emails you manage to open in a day, that doesn’t count. Unless opening emails is your job. But it isn’t.
If we want to drive up productivity, really want to transform, then we have to start by doing something different. It may not be broke, but that doesn’t mean it’s not holding us back.