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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: What are your workers hiding from you?

October 17, 2005

Many years ago, when I worked for a machine-tool dealership, I learned a lesson about technology and employees. As I was watching an employee run a part, I noticed he was doing something I knew hadn't been in the engineering setup requirements. When I asked about it, he replied that he knew his decision hadn't been sanctioned by the "idiots with slide rules," but if he had done it the approved way, it wouldn't work.

Further, if he had notified the engineers, the revelation would have caused so many questions, delays and discussions that he simply decided to take matters into his own hands and tell no one.

By the way, he was a bit behind times; the engineers had calculators, not slide rules. I'm getting along, but I don't date quite back to pre-calculator days.

The episode demonstrated to me the frequent disjoints between management and work force. They haven't gotten fewer in the ensuing years. Workers still solve their own problems and stay tightlipped about them. The solutions may violate company policy, or it may just be too much trouble to explain the real world to a "pointy-headed boss."

Managers cruise blissfully on, believing they are truly informed and in charge. Quotas are being filled. Jobs are getting done. Yet the whole time, an underground black market exists in nonstandard or unknown operations that aren't on the list of training modules for new employees. When a new employee joins up, he or she is indoctrinated in the unofficial methodologies by fellow employees, many of whom have forgotten that there ever was an approved way that isn't being followed today.

The result is frequently a management that can't manage. It's not a new workplace effect. I imagine that pyramid construction crews sneaked a few unauthorized techniques into the work site. But work today is dependent on technology, and the technology often creates unrealistic expectations of productivity. Having a spanking new customer relations management system doesn't automatically make sales any more efficient, but management may think it does and raise sales quotas accordingly.

Technology may not fit into the corporate work flow. Or it may not be capable of doing today's jobs, and so the foot troops create ad hoc solutions. A worker of my acquaintance is charged with doing monthly mailings, using addresses culled from a Web site. It may sound easy, but it isn't, and it took her days of trial and error to get the bugs worked out. She's been doing the mailings about a year. To her knowledge, no one else in the entire company knows how she does it. She's not hiding anything; it's just that no one has ever bothered to ask. The mailings go out, and everybody else has other things to do. How do you manage this situation?

Sometimes the problem is unworkable security measures. Some systems make employees change passwords regularly and not reuse a previous password for a year or more. Employees respond predictably by altering the old password by a single digit. Restrictions on company email are easily circumvented by using a private e-mail account accessed through a Web browser.

Another common reason employees hide things from management is the imposition of quotas. Quotas seem like a good idea. They establish targets, level the playing field for all employees, and permit some predictability, at least in theory. In reality, they can encourage fiddling with the company numbers and can even result in lost business.

Ethics.org reported on a call center where management quite understandably worried about the average time on calls. A target call time was established, and a clock appeared on each representative's monitor giving the call time.

The representatives, caught between impractical expectations and losing their jobs, did what management never dreamed they would do-they started hanging up on customers in the waiting queue, who probably assumed they had been victims of phone snafus. The Law of Unintended Consequences cannot be ignored.

Employees like these aren't out to sabotage their employers, but are trying to save their jobs, or to enable them to get their jobs done at all in the face of hopeless conditions. Being hamstrung by inappropriate technology isn't inevitable, and it can help a lot to engage someone from the outside who can do some business process analysis on your company, so you know what technology may help, and what may just get in the way.

Employee productivity measurements must be carefully selected, and an outside perspective can help there, too. In actual fact, technology interferes with business at least as often as it improves it. A management that doesn't know the difference isn't managing.



Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim.altom@perficient.com.
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