I was in this meeting the other day about a new product we are planning. The specifications and features of the product were pretty much defined, and the discussion was about how best to deliver it to customers. Usually, those sorts of discussions are mostly about IT, and this was no exception.
Now, our new product is nothing all that complicated. But it does need IT support, and some of the IT things needed are fairly involved. Significant enough, in fact, to cost several millions were we to do everything we might like.
When you start talking numbers like that, there is often a degree of incredulity from those without an IT background. How can it cost so much? I can buy a DVD down the road and install things at home myself, and that is more complicated that this!
Non-IT people rarely see how much complexity is involved in big systems work. Then again, the fact there is so much complexity is a huge problem for everyone, and things are getting worse, not better. The combinatorial explosion of things that can wrong whenever you touch anything sometimes makes it easier to just touch nothing.
That’s where paper can be an out-of-the-box solution. I can’t recall the last time I was in a meeting and someone actually proposed implementing a product using paper processes.
But for a new product, one that might or might not be big, and certainly won’t be big in the next two years, what is wrong with using paper?
You can imagine the horror when it was suggested. The cost! The cost!
Less, actually, than doing a custom system and getting it to work, when one considers potential product volume over the first two years.
IT systems are now so expensive we are at an inflection point. The point where doing things manually is more economically efficient for certain higher value, lower volume products than doing them automatically.
Paper as an innovative solution requires political fortitude on the part of the proposer. It is almost always unpopular. We’ve all been so indoctrinated in thinking that people based processing is bad we no longer even put it up as an option any more.
But look at its advantages. It is quick to get going. Quicker than practically any kind of IT. It is robust, and can recover from unexpected failures with ease. And it is cost effective for startup projects that don’t have all that much volume and don’t know exactly how things are going to work out at the beginning.
IT has none of those attributes. And I doubt it will get them any time soon.
Consider this: you can put paper behind a web site or any other self service channel and have the most fantastic experience you can imagine. It is therefore a wonder to me why web startups invest so much in their backoffice IT when they could probably get by with a beautiful user interface and a bit of elbow grease.
It is a further wonder that banks, with hundreds of years of experience paper technology have forgotten it exists.