I have a confession to make. I like Microsoft Access. In fact, I like it a lot.
The Microsoft Jet database engine is a disaster, but Access itself lets me snap together simple applications in not much more time than it takes me to think through the design. Sure it lacks some niceties, like decent support for recursive data structures. The lack of a macro recorder is simply baffling. Some features blow up inexplicably. Still, all in all Access generally stays out of the way, letting me do what I want to do without a whole lot of trouble.
Microsoft Access lets end-users design simple systems simply. So why do so many IT professionals complain when end-users do just that? Because many of these end-user-developed systems succeed, that’s why. By becoming too successful they become production applications … fragile production applications that require duplicate data entry, disagree with the system of record, disagree with other independently-developed Access applications that have succeeded, and sometimes just plain blow up. Did I mention that the Jet database engine is a horror?
These problems don’t just cause headaches for IT. They cause headaches for the business as well: A workgroup that used to work inefficiently using pencil-and-paper techniques now can’t work at all until its “production prototype” is up and running again; and a department that gets different answers to the same question depending on which database it queries never knows the right answer. To be fair, these same workgroups gave different answers to the same question when they used pencil and paper, too. It just took them longer to disagree.
Many IT organizations, seeing only the cost of the mess and not the business benefit of the automation these applications provide, simply ban Access. I formed the mythical Value Prevention Society (VPS) earlier this year as a place for them to congregate.
Enlightened IT organizations take a different approach to the problem. I’ve outlined some elements of their operation in earlier columns: Train power users in data-design; expose production data to MS Access and Excel (read only, please); and provide advisory services to end-users engaged in developing applications that use these tools.
By themselves, though, these steps mere ensure each individual application behaves as well as possible. It doesn’t solve the problem of having hundreds, or even thousands of them floating around colliding with each other.
A tangle of Access applications is nothing for IT to sneer at, of course. In many companies, IT has created its own tangles that are still in production as well. All that’s happened is that end-user-developed Access applications reveal the core problem of enterprise architecture at a different stratum of the organization. IT architects know that optimization of the parts doesn’t result in optimization of the whole — often the result is the opposite. A portfolio of individually sound, best-of-breed applications can still yield an icky applications portfolio. Which points to the solution for the Access tangle.
When enterprise architects analyze an applications tangle, they work with business areas to settle on a portfolio of go-forward applications, and create a coherent integration strategy. Then they develop a decommissioning plan for the other applications.
Do something similar for the Access tangle. Get close enough to the business to know which Access applications have reached “tangle” status. But instead of choosing some as go-forward applications, use the tangle to provide the specifications for a new, production-grade application to replace the whole shebang. My guess: IT should be able to replace an Access tangle with half the effort it would have taken to be involved at the beginning.
Last week’s column pointed out that there’s no such thing as an IT project. It’s always about changing the business. That’s still true.
What’s attractive about the Access Tangle Replacement Methodology (ATRM) is that the business change takes place before IT ever gets involved.