Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE
Vol. 2 :: Iss. 3 :: February 1999
Step by Step
Thomas J. Christoffel
The introduction of the first personal computer to my office in 1983, a Tandy Model 12, changed forever the way our small agency did business. Once letters, reports and addresses were in the computer and could be easily printed out, hand written drafts disappeared and the typewriters gathered dust. By 1988, there was a terminal on every desk and keyboarding was required for every professional position.
Our documents, spreadsheets and databases represented important knowledge that needed to be managed. By working with the computers software, I was able to design management of our knowledge products into the computer protocols. You can do the same. Another factor to consider is the risk you add by becoming dependent upon computers. This will be more clear as the speed of operations accelerates. Following are the technology management and design guidelines that I recommend.
1. Have an appropriately sized battery back up for every computer system. Protect the electronic brains that you are using to support the life of your enterprise.
Over the years, this has been the most critical program for protecting our data and equipment. Power outages and interruptions cannot be predicted. Even in the US, the power grids are subject to random interruptions. The power pole in front of our building was once hit by an automobile. Through the window we could see it sway. The next second the buzz of the battery system came one signaling once again we had been saved. Power loss and variability is a great threat to your systems. Take precautions.
2. Understand that the electronic documents in your computers are your corporate knowledge base which must be managed. Data survival is the primary focus for a sustainable organization. ASCII is the universal format for text. Much formatting is lost, but it is a strategy to consider for content preservation.. As a planning office, our work resulted in important knowledge about the region which could be used over and over.
Computer systems have protocols for managing data. By using our annual work program organization system as the basis for computer file numbering and naming, great efficiency was obtained. This can be done in any business.
3. Know where documents live. Letters, memorandums, contracts, reports, etc. can be modified and re-used for years, even decades with incremental modifications.
Entering information once, then maintaining it and modifying it is the primary productivity benefit of the computer document. Have conventions for naming documents and place that name on the printed document in an unobtrusive way along with the file directory code. Six months later you may not remember the name and, two years later, there's little chance. The codes may need to be cryptic in order not to easily reveal your organization to others. For example, we use LN to stand for last name. File folders are numbered reflecting a hierarchy of program.
4. Appropriate security is required for proprietary content and management of liability. In a small enterprise, there is generally a high level of trust. Technical people will be able to get anywhere in the system. The level of security you choose will be a function of your business. This is not a reason to avoid technology, only a management requirement. Regular backups for copies is part of overall security. Off site storage is important, as well as historical archives. A system of daily, monthly, semi-annual and annual backups is optimum.
5. Everybody keyboards. Business communication takes place through the written word. A deal may be negotiated verbally and closed with a handshake, but then you are told to put it in writing. To be a clear writer, you must be a clear thinker. The electronic screen can be changed as often as needed. The power to edit as you write can only be experienced at the terminal.
Executives used to a slower pace will resist, for that is clerical work. Those that want more control of the content will gravitate to this method and lead the way. E-mail is an application every person should know.
6. Select software carefully. Both the operating system and programs are important considerations. Find out what your industry, both suppliers and competitors, are using. Picking from market leaders is a clear option. Open systems like LINUX and shareware are low cost options. Market leading software can be the easiest choice. The skill level and learning abilities of your key technology people are important here. Try to avoid bias and seek to be objective in your selection. People sell what they've bought. Don't listen to salespeople, but try to find people using the software to determine its strengths and weaknesses.
7. Cultivate technical people in your enterprise. Form and content are important. Computers can enhance the problem solving capabilities of your organization and they will create new problems that have to be solved. In some aspects, rigid enforcement of style and standards is important, in others it is not. Give freedom where you can to encourage creativity in problem solving. The potential built into software programs is rarely realized before there is a push to move to the next upgrade. Great writers still use pen and paper or the typewriter. Their minds are disciplined to maximize those tools. Such discipline of thought can be enhanced by greater control of the mental output. Waking up people to this view takes time. Let the leaders lead. Reward productivity with the new tools. Keep an open mind and watch for creativity.
8. Focus on products. How do you do this? Computer technology supports communication. Processed information needs to have an application. Interpretation is what counts. The concise presentation of information should be the production goal. With the computer you control form and content in your output. Finding the most effective ways to communicate to your clients is a challenge. The way they used to get information - opportunities to solve their problems using your services or products - is likely to be changing among your customers. As the pace of life increases, the time available to review your communications can vary. A journalistic style of answering: Who? What? When? Where? and Why? may be effective.
Pay attention to the media and, in particular, to what works with you. Testing and building styles into your products can reinforce your message. Right justified text is taken as conservative, therefore we publish our letters and memos that way. Styles can be built into your documents and result in a unified look from multiple sources.
9. You can't go back to the old way. Once word processing replaces typewriting, you can't go back. For this reason, you need technology back ups. In addition to battery backup and disk storage backup, you need backup computers and printers so as not to be vulnerable to equipment failure. Redundancy in systems is a common design criteria. Computer technology systematizes corporate operating information in order to handle it. A thoughtfully designed framework makes it more usable. Those who are blind to this system need for redundancy are incurring great risk.
Redundancy is not just for equipment, but operators as well. If only one person knows how to use a particular software, then with the person absent, you are stymied. This is also a case where naming conventions are important, so that the proper file can be found by anyone. The new way requires redundancy in order to be accessible.
10. As a decision maker, understand as much as you can about technology applications and trends. The learning curve for technology will feel vertical when you first begin, but the more you attend to it, the more you will learn. You should develop your own network of reliable sources and individuals. Find out what your peers are doing. If none are available locally, use the Internet or magazines to find out where things are heading. Plateau where you can with stable technology. Traditional industries using computers to increase efficiency of routine operations are adding value and becoming more profitable. Those companies focused on inventing technology can rise and fall rapidly. Know what you are. There are multiple vertical learning curves. That's why organizations must team/network within and without.
11. Database software is the most complex, but properly implemented it will go farthest to building your corporate knowledge base. The client database which contains customer names, addresses, phone, fax and e-mail addresses is the key to effective communication events. Having it work for merge letters, mailing lists that include fax and e-mail distribution protocols should be a goal. Assuring that you address each and every individual client by the correct name and title in any communication requires good staff and computer software support. Nothing is more important.
You can achieve knowledge management for your enterprise by design and implementation of computer software systems. The eleven guidelines cover key factors that will not be found in user manuals or software texts. Integration of technology for the support of the creative process is something that can be improved through thoughtful management in a team environment.
Thomas J. Christoffel is a futurist and planner. He is Executive Director, Lord Fairfax Planning District Commission, Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.