What Dwight Eisenhower Can Teach Us About Microsoft Access

IT departments love to hate Access. With an open mind, though, Access can play an important role in a holistic approach to in-house software development.

What Dwight Eisenhower Can Teach Us About Microsoft Access

Microsoft Access may be best known as the application IT departments love to hate.

This reputation stems from Access's unique combination of traits:

  • Shallow initial learning curve
  • Rapid development environment, especially for CRUD apps
  • Near-universal availability (Access comes bundled in most MS Office suites)

Combined with these realities of the modern workplace:

  • Demand for custom software far exceeds supply of internal developers
  • Overworked IT teams are too busy putting out fires to help build tools
  • Constant change requires software that can adapt quickly

The result?  

An easy-to-learn development platform in the hands of novice developers with deep business knowledge leads to the proliferation of brittle, mission-critical applications.

The Alternative to Access is Not Utopia

Given this reality, some misguided and overzealous IT departments choose to outlaw Access.

Get rid of Access and you get rid of the problem of brittle, mission-critical applications.  Or so the theory goes.

Unfortunately, banning Access does nothing to address the root cause of the issue: users still need a way to manage and automate data-related tasks at a small scale.  If you remove Access as an option, you don't suddenly get bulletproof, enterprise-grade software that materializes out of thin air to take its place.  You get more Excel workbooks.  Like, lots and lots and lots and lots of more Excel workbooks.

But, hey, no Access!

President Eisenhower, Sidewalks, and the Wisdom of Spontaneous Order

In his article, True Paths, Jay Nordlinger writes:

Eisenhower, when he was president of Columbia University, presided over the creation of new sidewalks. People said, “Where should we put the sidewalks? What’s the best design?” He said, “Do nothing for a year. See where the students walk, naturally. And where they have beaten a path, put a sidewalk.”

This bottom-up approach to planning is also known as cowpathing.

A cow path (also known as a desire path) is a dirt path beaten into the ground by a herd of cows.

No one tells the cows where to make the paths.  There is no coordination among the cows.  The paths simply emerge over time in the areas where it makes the most sense for the cows to walk.

Economists refer to this concept as spontaneous order.

Embrace Access as a Cowpathing Tool

IT departments do not have unlimited budgets, and everything in life is a tradeoff.

In any given year, they get requests for way more software projects than they can fund.  And funding an enterprise software project involves a lot of risk: they're expensive, time-consuming, and miscommunication between developers and users can lead to software that doesn't even solve the original problem.

The long-term, high-risk nature of an enterprise software project makes it especially important that businesses green light the correct proposals.

Choosing a project based purely on the proposal itself–the design of the slide deck, the self confidence of the presenter, the gravitas of the proposal's champion–is not a reliable formula for choosing the project that will have the greatest impact on business operations.  

A better approach, in my mind, is to let the paths (i.e., the Access projects) "emerge over time" where the cows (i.e., the users) actually walk.

Paving Over the Cow Paths

I'm not saying that the Access application will take the place of the enterprise software development project.

Remember, at the end of the evaluation period, Eisenhower poured concrete sidewalks.  There is a very good chance that the Access application will need to be replaced over the long term.

But that is a good thing.

It means that you have proven the need for the software.  You will have significantly decreased the amount of risk involved in making your big decision.  You can confidently commit the resources necessary to complete that large-scale software development project.  And the software developers will have a working, in-production prototype they can use to ensure they are providing all required functionality for the users.

Of course, you might also decide you don't need sidewalks at all.  Concrete is expensive.

Cover image created with Microsoft Designer

All original code samples by Mike Wolfe are licensed under CC BY 4.0