Thursday, April 10, 2008


Paving (only part of) the Cow Path

I've been teaching process analysis and design in my Document Engineering course at UC Berkeley and I gave my annual admonition against "not paving the cow paths." I'm not sure where this expression comes from, but it is widely used to mean "don't just automate the AS-IS model" and is almost always meant to be a derogatory comment.

…with one exception: I've heard people in the "microformats" club use the cow paths phrase with pride when they create little languages that do nothing more than codify ordinary practice…

But I think that not paving cow paths is essential advice because even though there is usually some benefit to automating previously manual processes, the largest ROI often comes from new business models that were not possible without the automation.

This week I used two case studies to emphasize this point about needing to come up with "TO-BE" models. One was about Intel's use of RosettaNet to increase the efficiency of its component supply chain. The second was about a European supermarket chain's plans for RFID to enable demand-driven consolidation and shipment and replenishment.

So I note with was some amusement that my wife (also a Berkeley professor) recently received some email "Remittance Advice" from the UC Berkeley Disbursements Office, telling her that she was getting an electronic deposit to our checking account as a reimbursement for some expenses. The campus made a big push a few months ago to encourage everyone to sign up for direct deposits with the promise that it would speed up reimbursements, and who could argue with that? But they didn't do anything on the front end of the process, and there is still no way to submit reimbursement requests electronically. So my wife submitted expenses on paper back in November, and for four months they worked their way along the cow path until they finally reached the paving in the disbursement office. What's the point?

The next time I mention cow paths in a lecture I'll emphasize that if all you can do is pave the cow path, at least pave all of it.

-Bob Glushko

the cow path...very interesting metaphor you have created and maybe I can take it to explain a theory in one if my software developing classes
That is very helpful. It provided me a few ideas and I'll be posting them on my web site eventually. I'm bookmarking your site and I'll be back again. Thank you again!
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