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Technical debt goes company-wide

September 22, 2022.

Technical debt isn’t unique to applications: it can also apply to a business in general. We speak with Carlo Rossi, Spiria’s digital solutions expert in the Montreal office, who brings his many years of experience and a keen analytical mind to all types of digitization projects to ensure their success.

Spiria: In our work as software programmers, we use the term technical or technological debt to refer to potential costs accrued by using shortcuts in code development. If delivering a project on time and on budget gets tight, for example, we sometimes choose to circumvent problems rather than solve them. These weaknesses add up in the code and in the architecture. The day comes when they have to be accounted for because they’ve combined to compromise the stability, performance, security and scalability of the system. They are a sort of concealed loan that eventually needs to be repaid. But doesn’t the idea of technological debt go beyond just applications?

Carlo Rossi: Absolutely. The debt embedded in software applications is just the tip of the iceberg, with underlying technological fault lines having an impact on the entire organization’s ship. A company’s deferral of its operations overhaul can result in a different kind of debt. Many companies, for example, haven’t yet made the leap into digitization. They’re still working with paper or with electronic documents that aren’t interactive and that get passed around, which reduces efficiency. We review all operations looking for chronic pain points, and we often find the solution lying just below the surface of technology.

What’s the reason for the delays? Why are companies sometimes hesitant to change tack?

The problem isn’t new. During my training, I became fascinated with the Toyota Way, whose aim is to track down waste, to work smart and to establish a long-term vision. But many companies are still worlds away. They are reluctant to overhaul their processes in depth and so the problems remain. An analysis carried out in April 2022 by the firm Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton lists several factors:

  1. Many companies take a conservative view of their way of doing things.
  2. They don’t quite understand the processes that make up their operations.
  3. They’re not aware of the benefits of certain technologies.
  4. They fear change and risk, which is understandable. They’ve heard the horror stories of tech launches that ran aground.
  5. And finally, they often lack in-house staff with the skills to set off on a digitization plan.

So where does one begin?

With an in-depth analysis, an audit, which usually starts by listening to the people in the trenches. But to really listen, it helps to get the help of a consultant who can ask the right questions. By hearing the employees talk about their day-to-day, this consultant will quickly pinpoint places for improvement. In other words, before you make any decision, you have to identify, target, and plan, of course. Take the case of Arhoma, for example. This neat bakery had a hard time reliably filling its many restaurant and grocery-store orders. Spiria experts spent a few days with the employees who handle the orders. The consultants then recommended a customized solution whose sole focus was the order-taking process, which eventually combined the delivery logistics and billing.

Are custom solutions always the way to go? Aren’t there turnkey solutions that avoid having to reinvent the wheel?

Yes, and it’s the consultant’s job to make sense of them. As a matter of fact, we recently met the CEO of a clothing manufacturer who wanted to make his sales reps’ work easier on the road. Each was patching together a product catalog to show to potential clients. After analyzing their needs, Spiria found an extant solution that fit the bill perfectly. Technology is so democratized now that it’s quite common to come across an existing, serviceable solution.

Some payroll systems have been tried and tested, so there’s no point in starting from scratch. Sometimes this kind of solution means having to change your M.O., but that can be a good thing.

For sure. However, the best solution is often a custom-made solution, entirely tailored to specific needs. It’s important to really consider all the possibilities before opting for one thing over another.

CEOs would point out that the custom solution is also the pricier one.

Yes and no. With good planning, the ROI quickly becomes tangible. Before I came to Spiria, I worked on the opening of the new McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), where I was responsible for setting up a supply system. We realized that there were too many stakeholders and hurdles involved in the restocking of equipment. We pinpointed what could potentially be automated, namely purchases of basic medical supplies such as syringes, dressings, fluids, etc. No one has to press a button to renew this type of stock anymore! By figuring out where to prioritize the investment, we found substantial savings while making everyone happy.

And when one solution works out, companies are motivated to optimize further processes.

Exactly! One of the benefits was that staff came to see automation not as a loss of responsibility, but as an opportunity to dedicate themselves to tasks that are more in keeping with their skills, rather than the drone of filling out forms all day. Then we aligned the management of patients’ medical records and transportation for the three hospitals that had merged. In addition to standardizing forms and creating IT solutions, staff also needed computers and other work tools such as tablets, across all departments! A digital transition doesn’t stop at software improvement.

In software development, we often talk about continuous improvement.

Same goes for businesses. Technology can help you along, but it has to be thought out and planned. It can be fun!

So you need a game plan.

Exactly. If you try to tackle everything at once, you’re headed straight for an organizational and budgetary pile up! As we say at Spiria, don’t be afraid of just rooting around and checking out all the options, and then just go for it, keeping in mind the end goal. All told, technical debt is directly linked to companies’ digital maturity. You can’t assimilate new technology, whether automation, robotization, cybersecurity or other cutting-edge tools such as integrated information systems, without a shift in operations and culture.

Thank you Carlo for this enlightening discussion. So next up is a talk about companies’ digital maturity.

My pleasure.


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