Is your system really the problem, or just an excuse?

A new IT system might not solve all your problems, says Helen Simmons, finance director at the Diocese of London

Helen Simmons
Helen Simmons

People regularly ask for my view of a particular system, looking for the answer to a problem. They might be thinking of alternative software, an alternative Parish Share system (this is a way to track parishes' contributions to dioceses, for those of you not involved in the Church of England), or a move from in-house to outsourced IT, or vice versa.

It's often the case that their existing system has been badly specified, badly implemented, badly expanded or badly maintained. In many cases, all four things are true.

You need to establish which of these is the case; here, honesty is key. When I'm looking at whether a system is right, I am not interested in who took what decision and when. Instead, it's important to find out whether the issue with the system is a cover story and the actual problem is with the people overseeing the system.

Similarly, it's worth finding out whether an alternative system looks good because the people who are using it are skilled and efficient, rather than because of an inherent strength in the system itself. If either case is true, then switching will result in no net benefit.

It's a bit like receiving a home-made greetings card from a grown adult. Getting a card like this is charming and heart-melting if it comes from a child under the age of 12, but an adult might have done better to stick with their previous supplier - Clinton Cards, say, or Moonpig.

These people have probably spent some time watching the disturbing and alien world of QVC arts and crafts presenters and have seen the amazing things they can do with their card-making gadgetry.

But the presenters are specialists - people so absorbed in and addicted to arts and crafts that their travel luggage is designed to hold specialist scalpels and electronic stencil cutters, and their vocabulary gravitates regularly back to the word "decoupage".

The sender of your card has probably bought a lot of the same equipment, but failed to consider that the success of the DIY greetings card system relies not on the technology they are being sold, but on the extremely niche skills displayed by the user of the equipment.

It's often the same for IT. Buying a specialist, bespoke, in-house system won't work unless you've got the specialist skills to use it.

Sometimes, however, it is the system that is the problem, not the people. In this case, the next thing to look at is where you are now. However fantastic the system I am using might be for me, if someone else were to jump straight from their system to mine it would be like jumping from one moving escalator to another with a basket full of Faberge eggs.

So before inviting others to wax lyrical about their in-house IT, out-sourced payroll or the London Parish Share system, please ask yourself under what circumstances your current system might have worked better. Then consider the pros and cons of the other system and discount the net benefits of the eggs that might drop as you switch escalator.

Helen Simmons, finance director at the Diocese of London

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