Tuesday, 21 July 2015

What can we in IT learn about Business Systems from ‘Minecraft’?!

From an IT applications’ perspective, you could argue that there is no way ‘Minecraft’ should be a success. After all, in these times of high-powered and sophisticated devices with their stunning graphics capabilities, a game colloquially recognised as “blocky” and without a single non-straight line in the game perhaps should not have taken off at all. Indeed, it is an interface, one might suggest, that is at least fifteen if not twenty years out of date!

But it has been a success - and a raging one at that. Millions of people play it - many addictively. A whole industry and sub-culture has arisen because of it, and we now find some of its exponents - particularly in the world of the on-line video - gaining ‘Star’ status, appearing on TV chat shows, and with more followers than Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Philanthropic and Commercial giants.

So why is that? If we strip ‘Minecraft’ back to some basic level - that of an ‘application’ with ‘functions’ and ‘users’ - then what might we uncover that can be usefully and profitably reflected back into the world of commercial business systems? Where does it ‘work’, and - more importantly - are these factors applicable to our company’s finance or logistics or ERP systems?

Take perhaps the three of the most salient points:
  • It is inherently simple. The components on which Minecraft is predicated - the cube, the straight line, the interface - are consistent and universally adhered to. Whether you are working with bricks, carpet, snow or foliage, the way you work with them is the same; and, with a few exceptions in the area of ‘redstone’, what you can do with them is even more limited. You either put them in place or remove them. Left click or right click.
  • Because of its simplicity, it is easy to learn. Once you have mastered just a few basic concepts, then you are ready to roll.
  • On one level, this simplicity and ease of use could point to a lack of sophistication - but how you play the game and what you can do within it is massively sophisticated, and that is the more important thing. This ability to create your own world from a blank canvass, where no two buildings need be identical and where no two games will ever be the same, give ‘Minecraft’ the addictiveness that comes from seeing your personalised world rise in front of you. “Just one more brick…”, “just one more minecart track…”, “just one more tree…”.
Do the business systems’ we tend to implement in our professional lives mimic these traits? Hardly. We tend to make systems that are massively complex - and as a result, difficult to learn. In areas such as financial transaction processing or warehouse management, the things businesses do - buy stuff, sell stuff, pay bills, raise invoices, put stock away, pick it out again etc. - are, at one level, simple and homogeneous. And yet company after company believes it is “different”; that systems need tweaking to fit their processes. The end result is that we tailor and customise and seek out those final few percentage points of “perfect” alignment - and in doing so, we create a monster.

And it becomes a monster even before the system is ready to use. It takes too long to build; it costs far to much money; and, in taking this approach, we are creating something that, when the software vendor releases the next major upgrade, may once again take an age to re-customise, and again cost a fortune in doing so.

Some people might argue that they are building-in sophistication; that in taking this approach, they are driving value, efficiencies and so on. If that were truly the case, then why is just about every core business processes and major business applications dependant, at some point or other, on data being manipulated in Excel? If we had done such a great job with our highly customised and ‘sophisticated’ applications, we wouldn’t need Excel. Right?

Think about it. Excel is much like ‘Minecraft’. A blank page; a relatively limited number of rules; easy to use - and the chance for us to be creative and build something that a) fits ‘us’ as individuals, and b) meets the needs of ‘the process’ as we see it. Never under-estimate an individual’s desire to make their mark. As in ‘Minecraft’ worlds, no two Excel spreadsheets will ever be the same! [There is a potential pointer here to the future of business applications - but let’s save that for another article!]

So, keep it simple; change / build as little as possible; focus on what’s really important (and what commercially adds value); and engineer something that people actually want to use.


About the author / copyright

This material (text and photograph) is copyright of Ian Gouge © 2015. All rights reserved.