In two contexts, I have seen the complexity of changing information technology systems and organizational processes. I focus on this issue because many business and government reforms, such as health care reform, require both IT and process change.

I saw a great deal of complexity and inflexibility built into the college application process, particularly the Common Application. Some complexity and inflexibility, particularly word and character limits for essays, reduce the number of pages overwhelmed admissions departments need to read, and help the reviewer determine whether applicants can write concisely. It was a great experience for my son to have to prioritize his messages to fit within these limits.

Less defensible are applications that eliminate the applicant’s ability to enter specific data relative to activities, awards, and work experiences. Some applications have menus from which the applicant can choose, but do not allow additional entries. This kind of design decision, while it makes processing easier, makes it harder for applicants to include unconventional and more diverse life experiences.

This illustrates one challenge of process change: the tension between those who want simplicity for the processors, and those who want simplicity for the clients or customers the process is created to benefit. While it would seem obvious that the process should benefit its customers, the reality is that the processors, in this case, the admissions reviewers, have to work with it year after year, whereas each applicant touches the process once, or at most, twice.

The second context in which I saw process complexity was in the software packages used by a non-profit human services organization whose board I am hoping to join. I discovered that employees have to enter client data in multiple databases, each mandated by a government agency which funds some of the non-profit’s activities. For example, since this non-profit serves the needs of homeless people, it must access two different versions of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Homeless Management Information System to enter and update client data. These and other databases have compliance and reporting requirements that add complexity and cost to the non-profit’s daily activities.

The second process change challenge is that those who create processes have purposes different from those who work within them, and, often, the creator’s needs are inconsistent with those people who have to work with the process. In this case, the government funding source should be focusing on what the non-profit needs to fulfill its mission, as opposed to requiring reporting that, at best, is marginally related to mission-critical activity.

Many government processes, or processes shaped by government regulations, have complexity and rigidity built into them because government officials receive an inordinate amount of public criticism when something goes wrong, even if the consequence of that wrong result is very minor. As a result, they err on the side of requiring a huge amount of compliance-based activity to address a large number of low-probability events.

However, I even saw this in business environments. A certain percentage of the business population is risk-averse and will resist process and IT technology change because what exists gives them air cover and is safer than taking the risks of change.

The broader point is that, when I hear a political candidate or a business leader say that he or she is going to eliminate “waste” in systems and processes, or will “improve productivity,” I am skeptical of the ability to realize the kinds of savings these individuals promise. The forces of inertia are exceptionally powerful, compared with the forces of change.