Technology may promise productivity, but processes deliver

New versions of software, such as Office 2000, promise increased productivity and efficiency. But Tim Landgrave proposes that streamlining your business processes may increase productivity more than just blindly implementing new technologies.

I recently made the mistake of buying and installing a new computer with Internet access for my mother-in-law. In-law jokes not withstanding, it was an eye-opening experience. As someone who’s always playing with the “newest” technology, I was astounded at the amount of basic learning required for someone to master even the simplest “old” technology—mice, modems, Internet browsers, and electronic mail programs. But after documenting simple processes for effectively dealing with these “old” technologies, I was humbled by the level of productivity they afforded without requiring any use of the newer technologies.

After applying the same process documentation and task simplification principles in several businesses, it’s now crystal clear to me that as IT professionals, we’re all insanely caught up in the chase for neat, new things at the expense of simple process enhancements that can dramatically improve our productivity. In this article, I’ll look at two distinct ways that you can cut through the technology clutter and provide real value to your employees and/or customers.

Standardization of processes
Gains in productivity are born of two methods that are inherently at odds with each other. The first is finding new ways to do established tasks more efficiently (implementing new technologies). The second is to induct a standardized process so that a task is performed the same way each time (implementing process).

For 20 years, we’ve reaped the productivity benefits of using new technology (e.g., the word processor and electronic mail) to replace the old (typewriters and the paper memo). But while most of the new technology being introduced today provides us with different ways to do things, these new methods are not always more efficient.

The second method for increasing productivity, however, seeks to improve efficiency by inducting one standard work process that everyone will follow. If everyone uses the same process, then over time, the processes become optimized, and the company saves resources by both reducing the time needed to complete the process and by eliminating confusion. This also means that the company can train new process participants more easily.

Streamline user access and usage of applications
So how do you decide which path to follow? You should start by making a realistic evaluation of the true value of the new technology. For example, when Microsoft introduced Office 2000 in 1999, there was plenty of hype and fanfare about the increased productivity it would bring. But today, the penetration of Office 2000 versus older versions (Office 95 and Office 97) is well below projected levels.

What happened? Most companies simply weren’t convinced that the technology helped them perform their daily tasks more efficiently. The vast majority of business users get by using 10% or less of the functions available to them in today’s office suites. My analysis shows that on average, office suite users spend about 80% of their time using the word processor, 15% using the spreadsheet, and the rest with graphics or database programs.

In fact, over the last couple of years, word processor usage has declined dramatically because people now tend to make collaborative decisions by sending short notes via e-mail or by participating in Instant Messaging sessions instead of creating long documents that are seldom read.

What most people missed by not upgrading to Office 2000 were the support and stability features. Office 2000 was the first product from Microsoft that had features designed to keep it working smoothly. Microsoft implemented self-repairing technology that allows the system to automatically replace missing or faulty files, eliminating the need for a costly site visit to repair a damaged installation.

But to make this work properly, the IT department has to install Office 2000 consistently and from a shared application directory specifically configured for this purpose. In other words, for this technology to enhance productivity, the process for deploying it had to be consistent. More importantly, Microsoft provided documentation that allows a company to install Office 2000 to run from a Windows 2000 Server or Advanced Server, using the server’s memory and processor, and the client to interact with Office 2000 using a Terminal Services client. In this configuration, no desktops have to be touched in order to upgrade, repair, or maintain the Office 2000 software. This configuration also allows help-desk analysts to remotely see and share a user’s screen, keyboard, and mouse, making support calls less time-consuming and more productive.

If taken to the logical conclusion, configuring all systems in this way would require each computer user to have only a thin client device and to access all applications from banks of shared servers. This is impractical in many situations (e.g., limited bandwidth, large number of different applications, or high utilization of graphics-intensive applications like desktop publishing or CAD/CAM). But for that vast majority of users who use a common set of applications 100 percent of the time, it is far more efficient to provide them with a simple desk appliance that uses remotely served applications than to keep upgrading them to faster processors, more memory, and bigger hard disks just to run new technology. Simplifying the desk-side experience for your users should be one of your highest priorities—now that the technology to do so is commonplace.

Becoming process based rather than product based
Once you’ve simplified the desktop user experience by limiting access to programs that the users know and streamlining the process of running the applications by using shared installations or local hosting, it’s time to look at any efficiencies to be gained by instituting common practices.

The good news here is that most companies have more than enough technology to implement common practices without having to upgrade. The other point to be made, however, is that your ability to implement common processes is inextricably tied to common system implementations. For example, if you want to make your users more efficient in creating expense reports, then you need to have a common template stored in one place to which all users have access. The completion and submission processes should be clearly defined and, where possible, enforced within the template.

For example, developing an expense report template that validates accounting codes or categories automatically against your accounting system makes the completion process faster and less error-prone. Providing a “submit” button on the spreadsheet that automatically sends the expense report via e-mail to the person’s direct supervisor (as determined by a simple directory lookup) eliminates submission errors. You should look at all of your processes this way and implement simple systems to automate them.

Once you’ve completed a few of these process-automation exercises, you get another huge benefit. You can replace long days of training on word processors, spreadsheets, presentation software, accounting software, and line-of-business software with short bursts of process-based training. If someone wants to know how to fill out a time sheet, for example, you can issue a credit memo or create an invoice, and then your process-based (versus product-based) systems can provide training on completing that specific process. In this scenario, training can be delivered in small chunks and within the context of a business process rather than through long periods of product training without the associated context.

Improving productivity by simplifying interfaces and converting to a process-based approach to business won’t happen overnight and without sound planning. But as IT leaders, it is our responsibility to ignore the continuing barrage of new technologies without first considering how we can actually use them to improve our business processes.

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