“To err is human, to foul things up requires a Computer”. I was reminded of this recently when finally getting to the bottom of a long-running mess.

In this era of massively automated processes, how long does it take to change your address? In my case, the answer is 29 months (and I’m hoping that it is complete).

30 months ago I moved house, the whole of 50 yards, staying with the same postcode. Most of my change of address went through, without a problem, within a month or two. One organisation kept sending mail to both addresses. That was to be expected. The last time I moved it took them 18 months to prune down to a single address.

Despite 3 attempted updates online, one organisation kept using the old address. I eventually called the call centre and explained and they changed it for me. Now I got mail to both addresses. After a while the new address was deleted and the old one used as a mailing address.

I emailed the complaint system and explained. The new address was reinstated, but the old one carried on. After 15 months mail came through only to the new address.

So after 15 months, I only had one to go. It has taken 14 further months and about 20 attempts online and numerous complaints and calls to the service centre. Numerous profuse apologies have come but the fault took 29 months to, I hope, finally resolve. I finally suggested to them what the problem might be. My guess turned out to be close enough to finally nail the problem.

I don’t believe in naming and shaming as a panacea. The two worst offenders, well-known brands work to industry standards in their IT and follow all the best practice we would expect, so what is it that enables this mess to happen?

My suspicion is that in my move I have had between 6-800 mail items either delivered to the wrong address over the period from all the organisations I deal with. Add my time and the service centres staff and the cost is quite staggering.

Interestingly, the public sector has been far better than the private sector. I had no problems with HMRC and the NHS, for instance. Indeed Finance has been the worst offender.

So how can organisations using ITIL, Prince 2, TOGAF and the like make the stressful experience of moving home even more cumbersome and tiresome?

When we use the term “business process”, we are talking about 2 different beasts. The role of IT at one extreme is to replace human labour by capital substitution, automation. At the other end, we use IT to supplement or enhance labour productivity. Yet the tools and language are largely the same. When things go wrong, many systems are so locked down that the need to provide a human override is made incredibly difficult if not impossible.

My experience with this crazy mess has taught me that we need to develop better tools for capturing the human parts of processes to ensure that the IT systems actually support real business processes and not just the IT side.

Let me explain some of the things I have learned about the “business process” we can call “customer change of address”.

Many online forms ask for old and new address. The front end part of the process allows for the old and the new postcodes to be the same. I didn’t get any problems at this stage.

However, what I have found is that after that, there are a whole series of cock-ups.

The first appears to be updating the master customer database. Some systems appear to use the postcode. If the old postcode = new post code the assumption is that the update has already been done so the update is discarded. Calling the call centre doesn’t get round the problem, because the back end is the same.

The second is that some organisations run multiple databases for mailings, marketing and so on. These are consolidated, to clean the records, using the postcode periodically. I still can’t work out why two divisions of the same organisation behave differently. In one case one division got it right first time, the other took 6 months and continued to use both addresses. In one case the new address was repeatedly deleted approximately quarterly. It took a stroppy email and 2 months and a grovelling letter from the company to get it right.

Now the classic one goes like this. Update address online. Email says the update will occur in 48-72 hours. Letter is sent to old address, confirming update to new address. The reason for this is that the mailing address takes longer to update than the master file.

The new occupants of the old address popped the duplicates and others through my door. They moved on after a year. The new occupants then started returning the mail marked “not known at this address”. When it is returned, the company checks the postcode and confirms that that is the latest on record. A stop is put on all correspondence to both the old and the new address.

An email to the service centre once I noticed the absence of correspondence, started mail to both addresses again. It was this repeating cycle that has led to the 29 month experience. Just to cap it off, the official explanation is “an IT error”.

I beg to differ; it is a business process error. The automated IT support may well be flawed, but a failure to understand the human part of the process leads to an assumption that “customer change of address” can be fully automated. It cannot. That way leads to my experience. Those who are expected to deal with problems/complaints find that they are using the same systems that caused the problem in the first place.

So, the IT systems end up assuming that it is not possible for a human being to change address but retain the same postcode.

So, how can organisations using state of the art IT tools and processes in 2012 make such a mess of “customer change of address”?

Many of the tools and techniques I suspect are too IT focussed and assume a close relationship between “business process “and IT automation.

If we as a discipline are to bury the notion that “It is an IT problem”, do our tools and practice need to embrace more of the socio-technical aspects of business process? To what extent do IT practitioners bring this on themselves by using the term “business process” in a narrow sense of the word?

I wonder whether we are going to see this problem evolve. How long before the apology comes “It’s a problem in the Cloud”?

In the words of the song: “you say process and I say process, let’s call the whole thing off!”

About the author

Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.