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Are IT systems undermining your company's productivity?

In December 2011, the CEO of Atos bravely announced that he hopes in 18 months to ‘completely eradicate internal e-mails’, as only 10% of the average 200 (!) e-mails an employee received per day was useful. His intention: to replace e-mail with instant messaging and Facebook styled pages. It is an extreme measure in recognition that something is wrong with 200 e-mails per day. The solution however, is one that only an IT company can come up with: introduce another system. We seriously doubt if 200 instant messages are more productive.

This is not another top 10, describing how employees should avoid the vices of Facebook, switch off alerts, or about the inefficiencies of multi-tasking. We will try to answer: Does introducing more IT systems and computerization lead to higher productivity?  Why, after all the investments made in software solutions from enterprise resource planning and e-mail to sales force automation, are companies struggling to setup an infrastructure that increases employee’s productivity?

Systems don’t do business, people do

Software can absolutely help to improve productivity and turn repetitious and tedious activities into a single press of a button or provide new ‘on-the-spot’ insights in and reports on the business. However, unintentionally they also can lower productivity: social media applications can make collaboration and the information flow much easier, yet alerts can interrupt and employee’s current activity and the short form of communication can be unclear, incomplete and lead to confusion. 

A typical case: after implementing SalesForce.COM, SAP, Microsoft Exchange, a web presence, intranet and others, a company faces:
  • Employees and managers not using the systems.
  • Duplication or gaps between systems w.r.t. information or connectivity
  • Mismatches or dependencies between (historic) 
  • Less clarity in the organization as fewer people, beside the IT department, actually understand the whole process.
This may happen for various reasons, but a likely cause is that the systems and the problems they were trying to solve were prioritized above the employees and what task(s) they actually needed to achieve. As a result, the insufficient effort caused the new system not to have a logical place in the company, its processes and the work of the employees. This is critical important as:
  1. A system is as good as the people who use it
  2. Systems don’t do business: people do
  3. Good systems do not turn average or bad players into star performers

Systems can unintentionally change people’s behaviour

If an IT system does not have a clear place in an employee’s work, then rather than making things easier, things are getting more complex. E.g. should the customer information for the quotation be taken from Outlook, or SAP?  Adding IT systems often means that:
  • Employees spend more time on searching for information. 
  • Chances increase that wrong information is used, due to duplicate however not updated information.
  • Time is wasted on creating information that already exist in another system
  • There is an increase in ‘information silos’, whether due to connectivity or security issues.
  • There is a discrepancy between systems and roles, responsibilities and authorities.
Moreover, it can change employee behavior:
  • The means, updating the system or processing 200 e-mails, becomes more important than the goal: creating more business.
  • The pressure of the instant ‘reply expectation’ drives quick but reactive behavior e.g. answering  a question with a question, rather than a true action, which would be to look into the problem and provide a real solution.
  • Additional waiting times or process time due to incomplete information can cause passive behavior: people not acting in time and blaming systems at the cost of loss of business.
  • Employees circumventing the system(s) and using their personalized way-of-work.
The last point is quite common in sales and marketing organizations as the processes are less clear or less strict defined.

Optimize your current processes first

If the above sounded familiar, then do not add additional IT systems for the time being, unless other reasons force it through like obsolete technology. The priority should be first to create clarity in the existing organization and procedures and make sure they are optimal:
  1. Map, review and simplify the actual practiced procedures – We are not talking about the system procedures or the documented procedures in the quality manual: individual sessions with a representative group of employees map what they are actually doing in their day-to-day job. Use these maps to: removing duplication, simplify communication and information flows, remove unneeded dependencies and process stops or delays.
  2. Ensure existing systems use the above simplifications and optimization – (re)train employees, communicate roles, responsibilities, authorization matrices, procedures etcetera. 
  3. Manage using the systems – make sure that as much as possible existing systems are being used for reporting, updates and as a source for information. The fewer out-of-existing-systems requests, the more people will use and use more efficiently the existing IT systems.
Whilst executing on these 3 points might initially be time and resource consuming, the returns and improvements are visible on short notice as well.

Final words

If there is the impression that we do not like IT systems, the IT industry, the CIO or his colleagues, then this was not our intention. IT and IT systems are important tools in an increasingly competitive world and we believe that the right IT systems -SFA, CRM, Sales and Marketing 2.0 - if well implemented can have massive benefits for an organization’s productivity and performance. However, to get the maximum out of every invested dollar, the attention should first go out to understand and optimize existing processes – not what is on paper, but what employees are actually doing.

© 2012 EnFeat