The Work System Method:
Connecting People, Processes, and IT for Business Results



Current business organizations cannot operate without IT, but many IT initiatives fail to meet expectations and many IT-enabled systems satisfy neither employees nor customers. The following problems are disappointingly common:

• new systems that are supposed to improve performance but never meet expectations

• ineffective analysis and design projects that absorb time and effort but never produce consensus about what is to be done and why

• ineffective communication between business and IT professionals

• software implementation that proceeds despite disagreement about how the software is expected to improve work practices and provide benefits.

I wrote this book because I believe that many applications of IT would be more successful if business and IT professionals had an organized but non-technical approach for communicating about how current work systems operate and how they can be improved with or without changing technology. This book synthesizes ideas from many areas into a coherent, yet flexible approach any business professional can use directly. I believe it is unique among the many current books that promise business and technical professionals insight about organizations, competition, technology, and system development. Although many of these books address important topics in compelling ways, most of them ignore this book’s central issue for managers and business professionals:

How can I be more effective in evaluating systems and thinking about how to improve them, whether or not IT plays a major role, and whether or not the system is totally within my organization or links to other organizations?

In other words, this book differs from the many books that explain how technology has made the world a better or worse place, how new technologies will shape competition in the future, how executives should allocate investment dollars, or how to thrive in the chaotic times ahead. Anyone who reads those books already knows that the pace of change is increasing and that technology is both a source of opportunity and a glutton for resources and attention. This book presents ideas that can help in making decisions for which IT may seem part of the solution, but may also become part of the problem.

Goal and Audience

This book’s primary goal is to provide a rigorous, but non-technical approach any manager or business professional can apply for visualizing and analyzing system-related opportunities and problems. While this is not rocket science, just communicating more effectively about systems would help in seizing missed opportunities, minimizing wasted effort, and attaining business results.

Unfortunately, common tools and methods for IT professionals do not support this goal adequately. Graphical documentation tools are certainly useful for explaining the detailed structure of a proposed or actual system, but these tools omit many key topics related to work system characteristics, human participants, customers, and the surrounding environment. Carefully scripted meetings facilitated by internal or external consultants have been used widely, but except in very complex situations, a meeting of the minds shouldn’t require engaging a consultant. And regardless of how expertly IT professionals do their technical work, they too would often benefit from a better way to think and communicate from a business viewpoint.

This book is written for business professionals who want to participate more effectively in building, using, and managing systems that apply IT, and who may wonder how to create practical meaning from the technology-related sales pitches, jargon, and speculation they often hear. Even if they have a coherent view of what to do about applying IT, they often find it difficult to explain that view to their business and IT colleagues. This book addresses these concerns by providing an organized approach for thinking and communicating realistically about how systems operate in organizations and how they can be improved.

The book’s secondary audience is IT professionals who want to work more effectively with business professionals when building or maintaining systems. The mere fact that they are IT professionals often pushes them into the role of technology advocate even when they realize that a more balanced, business-oriented approach would lead to greater clarity, greater trust, and better results.

It is important to say what this book is not. First, it is not another book about reengineering and does not assume that you need to change your company to compete in the 21st century. Although it uses some ideas that are associated with total quality management, it is not another book about total quality, statistical process control, or Six Sigma. Rather, it is about establishing a basic understanding that is required before a more detailed analysis is performed. Similarly, it is not about software or software development even though it uses some of the terms used in software development projects. Many established tools and procedures help software engineers produce the extensive documentation needed to produce high quality operational software. The ideas in this book address neither that type of work nor that level of detail, but they might help software engineers develop software that better reflects the needs of the business.

Basic Ideas

This book’s central concept is the work system. All businesses and organizations consist of multiple work systems that perform essential functions such as hiring employees, producing products, finding customers, selling to customers, providing customer service, and planning for the future. Almost all important systems in today’s organizations use IT extensively, but there is no reason to believe that IT will be the source of all improvements. Even if a particular system uses IT extensively, from a business viewpoint IT is not the headline. Rather, the headline is about how well the work is done and how it provides value for internal or external customers.

The work system method is organized around the work system framework, which summarizes the components that should be considered in even a basic understanding of a work system. Using this framework to identify the elements of a particular system helps in establishing mutual understanding of the scope and operation of the system being discussed. A deeper analysis examines these elements and their interactions. The work system method provides an organized, but flexible structure for analyzing a system from a business viewpoint, identifying possible changes, and then justifying a design recommendation.


This book is organized in layers. Some readers probably want just the first layer, a basic understanding of the approach. Other readers want to understand the work system method in enough depth to apply it when analyzing a work system.

With the exception of establishing a rigorous definition of work system, this book is written using familiar business terms. It chapters use a format that is designed for skimming. They contain tables, bullet lists, and bolded subheadings that should help in finding what you need.

Part I consists of seven chapters that introduce the work system approach and summarize how to analyze a work system from a business professional’s viewpoint.

• Chapters 1 and 2 introduce basic ideas about work systems, including the definition of work system, the work system framework, and the work system snapshot that is used to summarize a work system on one page.

• Chapter 3 presents an overview of the work system method, which is designed to help business professionals clarify system-related issues, identify possible directions for change, and produce and justify a recommendation. This chapter emphasizes logical flow and alternative paths for using the work system method.

• Chapters 4, 5, and 6 present clarifications and specific topics related to the three main steps in the work system method. Chapter 4 discusses issues related to deciding a work system’s scope and resolving ambiguities about the work system’s elements. Chapter 5 uses the work system framework to organize a large number of common topics that provide hints for identifying issues and possible improvements during the analysis process. Chapter 6 covers aspects of explaining and justifying a recommendation.

• Chapter 7 uses the work system life cycle model to explain how work systems evolve over time. This iterative model is quite different from the “system development life cycle” models that are often proposed for guiding projects.

Part II looks at each element of the work system framework in more depth. The main purpose is to identify a range of issues that should be considered when analyzing a work system. All of these issues are important in a large number of work systems, although many of them may not be important in the particular one you need to think about. Accordingly, these chapters are organized to make it as easy as possible to find topics that are important in a particular situation.

• Chapter 8 uses an example to show how the top levels of the work system method can be applied to organize the analysis of a work system. The example concerns a regional bank’s system for approving large commercial loans. It combines aspects of a number of real world situations, thereby illustrating the potential relevance of topics identified in tables in Chapter 5 and explained in Chapters 9 through 14. Many of topics are relevant to a work system’s operation and success but are downplayed or ignored in techno-centric analysis methods for IT professionals. The example is presented as a discussion document, and includes comments by a management reviewer.

• Chapters 9 through 14 explore concepts used for describing and evaluating each work system element in particular situations. Sections within the chapters cover performance indicators, strategies, tradeoffs, and related issues. These chapters include:

Chapter 9: Customers and Products & Services
Chapter 10: Work Practices
Chapter 11: Participants
Chapter 12: Information
Chapter 13: Technology and Infrastructure
Chapter 14: Environment and Strategies

• Chapter 15 closes the book by looking at work system ideas in a broader context. It shows how these ideas can be used to identify omissions in success stories and claims about systems, to interpret IT- and system-related jargon, and to understand information system categories that are changing continually.

• The Appendix completes the example that was introduced in Chapter 8 by showing how it might be described in a work system questionnaire. It includes five checklists related to performance indicators, work system strategies, risk factors and stumbling blocks, work system principles, and possibilities for change. It also includes questions and templates for justifying the recommendation.

Background and Motivation

This book is based on a combination of experience as vice president of a software firm and as a business professor teaching MBA and EMBA students at the University of San Francisco. In both the business world and the academic world I found that people had difficulty explaining how systems work, how they should be improved, and why. Part of this was an unfortunate tendency to focus on what computers do and to de-emphasize what people do. Another part was the lack of an organized method and vocabulary for thinking and communicating about systems. The explosion of hype about ebusiness and the subsequent dot-com bust may have shifted the discussion a bit, but the underlying problem persists.

I first recognized the need for greater understanding of computerized systems thirty years ago during interviews of decision support system users as part of my Ph.D. research at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. The need for greater understanding of systems shifted from an academic interest to a pocketbook issue when I served as vice-president of Consilium, a successful manufacturing software firm (acquired by Applied Materials in 1998). Working with customers in a variety of management roles related to consulting, customer service, training, documentation, and product design convinced me that many business professionals need a simple, yet organized approach for thinking about systems without getting swamped in details. Such an approach would have helped our customers gain greater benefits from our software and consulting, and would have helped us serve them more effectively across our entire relationship.

This book is one of the results of a multi-year research effort aimed at developing a systems analysis method that business professionals can use for themselves without relying on consultants or IT professionals to help them get started. A number of articles based on this research were published in the last six years in the Communications of AIS, an online journal of the Association for Information Systems.

The effort started in 1992 with a series of presentations supporting a book tour for the first edition of my information systems textbook, whose four editions were used by several hundred thousand business students in universities around the world. The topics in the original presentations were the basis for a working paper that MBA and Executive MBA students used to analyze computerized systems in their own businesses.

Around 1997 I suddenly realized that I, the professor and textbook author, had been confused about what system the students should be analyzing. Unless they are focusing on software or hardware details, business professionals thinking about information systems should not start by describing or analyzing the information system or the technology it uses. Instead, they should start by describing the work system and identifying its shortcomings, opportunities, and goals for improvement. Their analysis should focus on improving work system performance, not on fixing information systems. The necessary changes in the information system would emerge from the analysis, as would other work system changes separate from the information system but necessary before information system improvements could have the desired impact.

With each succeeding semester and each succeeding cycle of papers by employed MBA and EMBA students, I tried to identify which confusions and omissions were the students’ fault and which were mine because I had not expressed the ideas completely or clearly enough. The original working paper evolved into a workbook and then into an analysis outline that became more effective over many iterations of use in situations that these typical business people faced at work every day.

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