Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

Information Technology Dark Side header image 2

Process or Methodology?

May 8th, 2006 · 17 Comments

Does anyone know what the difference is between process and methodology? I sure as heck don’t, or at least I didn’t. So I looked both words up at and this is what I found:

Methodology: a body of methods , rules, and postulates employed by a discipline : a particular procedure or set of procedures.

Process: a series of actions or operations conducing to an end; especially : a continuous operation or treatment especially in manufacture.

We’ll get back to this in a minute, but first, a brief aside: The definition for the word process had five different usages. The fifth one was slang, apparently from a different era/locale than the one I reside in. It meant “conk”. You know, like “I’m going to conk you over the head if you don’t update that project plan.” I like the idea that even Webster sometimes feels beat over the skull by process.

Okay, forget about conk for now. I’m sure that was unnecessarily distracting, but I couldn’t resist throwing it in. Go back to the two definitions I mentioned and review the differences between them.

When I read them, and thought about them for a minute, I started to think about the biases about these two words that I already have (I hate process, but embrace methodology). I found the reasons for these biases in these definitions, and now I can boil it down to two simple metaphors.

A methodology is a box of tools. Use them however/whenever you wish.

A process is an instruction book, the step-by-step kind that come with a child’s bicycle or a new VCR.

This clarity of meaning was a sort of revelation to me. I now know why I hate process – it’s the same reason I have to force myself to read the instructions that come with new devices. 99% of the time I don’t need them!

I also understand why I tend to embrace methodlogies. I love tools! I recently bought a $500 commercial grade paint sprayer (not the crappy Wagner kind) just to paint my house with. That’s how much I love tools. Tools are always a value add – they have so many uses!

Process on the other hand, has little residual value once the “assembly” is done. Once that lawn mower or grill is put together, you can throw the “process” in a drawer (or trash) and never use it again! And there is certainly no value in memorizing the assembly process for a mower, unless you are going to be assembling the same mower over and over again.

Now, let me get one thing straight. I’m not saying there is no value in process. Process has its place. In corporate IT, process belongs in one place only, at a low level in repetitive maintenance/support activities, where it directs the step-by-step efforts of a minimally skilled IT worker or to implement controls around certain decision-making activities. For instance, it is probably worthwhile to define a process for shutting down an employee’s access once the decision has been made to terminate them. Also, a process should exist for the approval of expense reports, etc. These make sense.

Process is especcially useful in any sort of repetitive task, which is why it’s so great in manufacturing. Making the same thing over and over and over again certainly lends itself to a particular set of steps that ought to be optimized. Every scrap of waste effort should be eliminated to make the set of steps as simple as possible, reduce the number of tools needed, and the skills required to do the work.

I think this version of process would work great for IT work – at least that part of IT work that is essentially the same set of tasks repeated over and over. Unfortunately, very little of IT work that I would be interested in doing is this type of work. In fact, this is exactly the kind of work that is being out-sourced (rightly so, I might add). I don’t want to do it, and if you’re smart neither do you.

But the important work in IT, the progressive work that makes the company stronger, adds new capabilities, and enhances competitive advantage, is not repetitive, mindless work that we can slap a process on and turn over to an unskilled work force. Strategic work, work that matters, doesn’t come with a checklist or detailed step-by-step set of instructions. If it did, IT’s business partners wouldn’t need us.

No, the work that matters most needs two things: good people and good tools. Both are essential. Good people will generally find a way to get things done even without good tools, but they’ll quickly move on to better environments if their requests for improvements go unheeded. Good tools become weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the incompetent.

Good people and good tools (methodology) are more important than good process. As we mentioned before, good process is only applied to repetitive tasks. It shouldn’t be applied to work that is different every time (projects). Instead, IT needs to have the mindset (and confidence) to let good people take their toolboxes to a project, figure out the best way to use them, and then start getting things done.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
Stumble it!

Tags: Job Advice

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Justin R // May 8, 2006 at 1:16 pm

    You misspelled ‘waste’ (I think) in the 13th paragraph. Other than that, nice insight … as usual. Although, I’m still waiting for the post that outlines the effectiveness of the yo-yo as a catalyst to mental progress.

  • 2 Michael // Jul 24, 2006 at 4:30 pm

    The “conk” that is a synonym for “process” is not the verb you mention, but a chemical hair straightening process common to African American men from the 20s to the 40s, and the resultant hairstyle which was popularized by Cab Calloway. The term “conk” probably comes from a brand of the lye-dominated chemical applied in the process, “conkolene” or “congolene”.

    Hepcat slang used “conk” to refer to the head, which was probably a result of the popularity of the style.

  • 3 MBURN // Apr 22, 2007 at 8:02 am

    I work in IT and agree wholeheartedly. Where I am the PROCESS is more important than the actual task of getting the thing right.
    Our main issue is there is so much of these process idiots where I work no-one has a clue how anything works or should work.
    Psst. Do yourself a favor and check the latest moronic process thought,
    The idea is each set of system processes can be measured by what they call function points.
    These process thinkers (they call themselves Function point counters) believe that you can estimate IT/System project work by applying this type of process to each project in order to determine a so called accurate estimate of the work required.
    Most of these counts are completely inaccurate but it gives management an excuse to hire cheap inexpensive labor.
    It also is an excuse for many of these nerds to remain in the industry or their job as most have no idea of any type of system analysis

  • 4 dave // Apr 23, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    Uggh. I’ve seen function point counting before. It doesn’t work either, at least not in any context I’ve experienced it. My condolences!

  • 5 doris acott // Oct 24, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    I agree with Michael. You need to explore the world of words by Dell Hymes and Roger Shuy. But then you probably know about morphemes and phonology. Also suggest you look into multui-culturalism at the University of Michigan. A process was used by Negroes and African Americans caught up in the Ugly American Syndrome and needing to be white to get paid. Nay King Cole had to do it to get paid. Understand? now dude!

  • 6 haizea o'brien // Apr 5, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Thanks for differentiating methodology to process. Now I know the difference between Software development process and Software development methodology. I thought they were just the same. Great help!

  • 7 Amar // Apr 8, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Thanks for making so clear….

  • 8 Bud // Oct 21, 2009 at 4:52 am

    You haven't elaborated on methodology as much as you have done on process.

  • 9 Jennifer // Jan 25, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Thank-you for writing this post. I really needed to get more clarity for these two words (considering that English is not my first language and sometimes words are used alternately in that language but they truly do not mean the same, at least not to me).

    Anyway, where I am, there is need for both process (high-tech clean room manufacturing with lots of QA functions and repetitive work such as gowning) as well as methodology documents (think R&D and how to create a new widget).

    Thank-you !

  • 10 joe // Apr 22, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Where does the definition of "approach" fit in?

  • 11 robert // Nov 7, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    awesome, thank you. I’ve been reading Hugh Dubberly’s draft of “How do you Design” in which he compiles all sorts of Design Processes.

    Which got me thinking of the exact question you have posted.

    thanks again.

  • 12 mark // Aug 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    perfect clarification, thanks.
    you might enjoy robert pirsigs ‘zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance – he talks about the pitfalls of the instruction manual and process!

  • 13 Nagesh // Aug 14, 2014 at 7:46 am

    My view:

    Process is a series of activities but method is what is used to perform each of the activity.

    Many times the process may remain the same but the methods need to be changed with changing market demand.

    For example… Insurance company sends reminder by post when policy is due for renewal. Here sending a reminder is an activity. Sending by post is a method which normally takes 3-5 days to deliver to the customer. Method can be changed here to ’email’ to speed up the reminders.

  • 14 Bill Whittenburg // Apr 5, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    Loved the insight. Not only do I agree, I use the same explanation!
    I’m piloting a word game that helps students understand logic as early as 4th grade. I teach the logic methodology (both inductive and deductive reasoning).

  • 15 Karuthan // May 16, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    clear explanation.

  • 16 MaxKilRoy // Dec 13, 2015 at 6:12 am

    So much nightmarish truth in previous posts, but I digress.

    Needed to verify hierarchy and develop a memory aid for these two words I rarely used in the past for future stints of writing: Methodology > Process > Action > End Result, as they would be applied to large-scale open-source software development. Thanks!

  • 17 David Kung // Jul 4, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    Process and methodology are different but have been thought being the same. I agree with Nagesh’s comment. In my book “Object-Oriented Software Engineering: An Agile Unified Methodology,” I discussed these two in Chapter 2, titled “Process and Methodology.” A process is a series of activities performed to accomplish a task. It describes WHEN to do WHAT, but not HOW to do it (though some process models do describe HOW to a certain extent). In other words, a process can be considered a workflow diagram. A methodology, on the other hand, is like a cookbook — it details the steps or HOW to perform the activities of a process. In this sense, I agree with David Christiansen’s finding in the 2nd paragraph. In this regard, a methodology is an implementation of process; and hence, a process may have more than one methodology that implements the process. The following are more detailed differences between the two (assume that the two are strictly distinguished, that is, exclude the hybrid ones):

Leave a Comment