Cowpaths versus desire paths, which should you pave?
In cities with cold winters, designers of public parks are reported to observe footprint density after a fresh snowfall. Snow obscures the existing paths so the footprint patterns will reveal where people come from, where they are going and how they make their way through the park. These new paths trodden in the snow are referred to as desire paths. Desire paths can be visible in other climates too, as my Australian colleague James Dellow proves by looking out of his hotel window in Canberra.
Contrast the concept of the desire path with the ill-advised IT practice of ‘paving the cowpaths’ which has come to mean the embedding of an existing (inefficient) process in a system thereby perpetuating current inefficiencies.
Why would cowpaths be different from the efficient desire paths? Could it be that we have focused too much on the cowpath part of the ‘don’t pave the cowpaths’ saying and set off searching for something else to pave? Perhaps it is the paving of paths in general that is ill-advised. Once a path is paved, changes are difficult and costly.
Transactional processes need system support in order to maintain consistent output and reduce average costs. There is a host of other business activities where other factors are the priority and where business processes emerge together with the information they generate only to be refactored when things change. Most knowledge intensive processes are in this category. The ability to evolve the process over time could be more valuable than any instance of the process itself.
In a number of projects that applied our Social Business Design approach I have witnessed how social platforms have replaced specific processes on a one-to-one basis, requiring detailed process design, while allowing more amorphous business activities to take on process shape by convention. The interesting thing to note was that both types of processes, those we designed as part of the implementation and those that coalesced with the platform as a catalyst, soon evolved benefiting from the flexibility offered by the platform.
Don’t pave the paths unless compliance constraints or a strong focus on uniformity or average costs force you to. Allow processes to bend with the forces of innovation and provide support for processes, new and old, by letting them evolve, supported by a flexible platform.