System of Record

A few months ago I wrote in an essay that business processes arrive in the modern age only when they have a system of record. This first started with accounting (centuries ago), which led (much more) recently to the back office and manufacturing with MRP, and then eventually ERP. The same occurred again with sales, beginning with contact managers before moving to sales force automation, and finally customer relationship management (CRM).

In the product management space, we are in the very early system of record days. Most software companies have a system for software source code changes, but almost no company has a legitimate system for product ideas and input, or front-end customer interactions (i.e., interviews, ethnology, market discovery and research). Likewise, typically there is no system of record for product marketing (i.e., value proposition, benefit statement, go-to-market plan). Instead, all of these are stored in various spreadsheets and documents, but not tracked or managed.

A product management system of record can, for example, capture the reasons behind a product decision and the thinking and justification behind that decision, such as:

  • The customers that want it or will use it
  • The markets it opens for us
  • The themes which it helps us make progress on
  • The marketing story we want to tell
  • How it differentiates us from other products in our market

Not having a system of record is a big detriment when it comes to creating great products. In fact, I bet that some of the most successful products were created by companies that have a system of record. Apple, for one, comes to mind.

So, what are the benefits of having a system of record for product management? A system of record brings:

  • Transparency: Everyone can see what (and why) the product team is doing and relate it to the company strategy
  • Justification: The prioritization decisions are now data driven and, therefore, the justification process is much more transparent.
  • Memory: The organization can quickly understand why certain decisions were made which previously would have been simply impossible to reconstruct if the knowledge and history left the company when a PM left the company.
  • Communication and collaboration: This repository of reasons for why certain features were implemented is incredibly valuable for the marketing and sales operations organization – often the marketing data sheets can be read directly off the prioritization decisions.

The Solution (Sort Of)
There are a lot of tools out there that call themselves “the system of record for product management,” but look at how much of the “record” is still stuck in peoples’ heads, especially PMs. As far as I know, there are no tools available right now that support those things I listed above.

So, given that you want to join the 21st century and have a system of record that captures all this information, how are you going to do it? Your best option today is to devise your own out of piece parts.

Given that, you get to decide what collection of systems will comprise the final system of record, and how to best manage the interactions between them so that the value is achieved.

You need to think about the questions you want to answer with the system of record. Personally, I have questions like “What customers have asked for this feature or this kind of feature”? “What features have we done in the most recent release that will please this customer I’m visiting?” and “What are the highest priority features for this customer that are NOT on the roadmap at the moment?” Your questions might be different!

The integration between the piece parts can come from the products, be done post-facto as a consulting engagement (if you need it automated), or be done manually.

It’s often worthwhile to make some parts of the process manual, if all of the following are true:

  • There is no good automated alternative
  • It helps people engage cognitively with the underlying problem you’re trying to solve
  • It’s the right scale

An example of this might be linking user stories in the task provisioning system (i.e., Jira) to the descriptions or requirements in a wiki. This is a scalable task – at any given time the team will be working on a few dozen stories in the backlog at most (i.e., per team), and this can be managed by a single product manager.

This is actually a lot like how real tools are used. When I build shelves for my hallway, I use the table saw, biscuit joiner, nail gun and so on for various sections. The “system of record” for a woodshop is a set of key tools (saw, jointer, drill press), surrounded by other tools (biscuit joiner, nail gun, sander), in addition to other tools that allow them to all work together (miter gauge, table, dovetail jig).

The value of a system of record is immense, but at the moment you’re not going to find one system that will encompass everything for the product organization. Part of the strategy of a system of record for product is figuring out which piece parts you need, and then doing the necessary work to make sure they are well-integrated via a combination of technology and manual processes.

That’s how a real, effective product system of record can work today. And product management can definitely benefit.

Have you developed your system of record? What helped or inhibited your effort? Leave a comment and let us know.