Infotech: a tool for control or empowement?

Ben Teehankee

August 24, 2000

The View from Taft


The local e-commerce landscape is shaping up. Big name companies are announcing their B2B initiatives one after the other. I'm sure these companies are aware that to be really competitive in e-commerce, an organization must reinvent itself, especially its core business processes. It will need to redesign its processes for faster cycle times and train its people to work in collaborative information-sharing modes. This is the realm of e-business. Going into e-commerce without going into e-business is like racing a jeepney in the Indianapolis 500. It will not be a joyful ride.

Granted that the need for change is there, the process for IT-enabling an organization is not as simple as it is often made to sound. Why? Because the transformation that needs to take place is not mainly a technological one to be left to the IT group, but a cultural one, which is best addressed by top management.

Information technology works positively under certain premises but it can be shown that many organizations work on the opposite premises. I believe that the success of a company in fully benefiting from IT in its operations will depend on how it uses IT-generated information to empower employees than to control them.

Sophisticated project management and performance monitoring systems can now allow managers at the highest level to see the progress of task accomplishments and financials throughout the organization. These systems are, in turn, supported by networked database systems that allow performance information to be displayed by corporate unit, geographic unit, through time, by product or service line, by individual performer, etc. To the information-hungry manager, this is a fantasy come true. No need to wait for reports; the information is always just a mouse-click away.

So is this a good thing to have in a company? It depends. If management uses the information mainly to initiate cycles of improvement and to find out how to better support those who do the work, it could be a good thing. If the information is used to improve the performance of the total system by identifying and removing performance bottlenecks, it could be a good thing. If the information is used to enable learning to be extracted and shared with everyone involved, then it could be a good thing.

But if unfavorable performance information often triggers phone calls to lower level managers with the message: "What's happening? Better fix it, or else!" such a system becomes an employee's worst nightmare. The ultimate malpractice is when information from automated systems, without external validation, is used to rank performance and allocate rewards or penalties accordingly. This promotes internal competition and slowly erodes enthusiasm among coworkers. It undermines trust and collaboration and ultimately, product and service quality as well.

The main problem with this practice of "management by remote control" is that while the information travels with blinding speed, it is often reported without context. Thus, any judgment based on such information is misleading at best and oppressive at worst. The person doing the work is often the best judge of context. Managers who are several levels removed from the work situation would do well to keep in touch with the context of the work on a regular basis before relying on reports of any kind, automated or otherwise.

Brian Joiner, writing in Fourth Generation Management, reports a graphic example of the dysfunctional practices that a company's employees evolved to defend themselves from oppressive automated systems. Telephone operators in this company were asked to meet the goal of answering 95% of phone calls within 15 seconds as part of its thrust of delivering prompt service. A large electronic dial displayed in the middle of the operators' room showed the percentage of calls meeting the 95% goal. The performance reports showed that the operators were meeting the goal and the company's executives, not knowing any better, were quite pleased.

The greater insight, however, came from asking the operators how they met the goal. When the dial begins to go down, the operators would start rushing calls and be less courteous. When the dial dips further, they would try to end calls more quickly which would result in customers calling back two or three times before getting all the answers to their questions. If the dial dips further, the operators get their supervisor to call in, say hello and hang up. They get credit for a quick call and the dial goes up. If all the above doesn't bring up the dial, the operators would simply disconnect callers and the dial goes up. The callers would naturally have to call again.

How common are such elaborate performance charades played out by employees to appease their information-hungry and control-oriented managers? How often do employees take shortcuts in their work and sacrifice quality just to meet "the numbers"?

Corporate leaders need to understand what IT as a tool can achieve. More fundamentally, they must understand what the culture of an IT-enabled organization looks like. If they want to use IT positively in their corporations, leaders will need to pay more attention to corporate values, especially those attached to information.

The main decision will not be whether to use this customer relationship management software or not. It will not be whether to build an Intranet or use an ERP system. The main decision is whether they are prepared to make information serve those who do the work for customers and not simply meet the needs of managers for control.