Software for managers
December 21, 2000
The View from Taft
Despite the penetration of information technology into most aspects of business, many managers still think that, for the most part, software is something their staff would use, and not them. This is because most PC software applications have been associated with word processing, spreadsheets, presentation graphics and databases - applications perhaps best left to competent staff rather than managers. But what if there were software made just for managers so that they can deal with real value-added activities such as strategic planning, decision making and business process reengineering? And what if this were so easy to use that a manager who can run Word can learn to use it with one afternoon's training? Wouldn't that be something?
Well, such software exists and it's called mba-ware. The good news is that most of this software can be downloaded from the Internet and tried out for free.
There are many mba-ware out there and my intent here is just to give a flavor of what is already possible. In particular, let me tell you about Expert Choice for complex managerial decision making, TeamFlow for business process management and Business Insight for improving marketing strategies.
Expert Choice (http://www.expertchoice.com) is a software developed by Thomas Saaty of the University of Pittsburgh based on a technique he developed called analytical hierarchy processing, or AHP. Although the decision-making model is mathematically derived, you don't have to be a mathematician to understand what the software does. The software guides the decision maker in:
1) defining the decision goal, or the target outcome of the decision;
2) defining and prioritizing criteria for a good decision. Through mathematical wizardry, the software converts qualitative criteria into quantitative indices; and,
3) allowing the systematic evaluation of alternatives based on the previously defined goal and decision criteria.
IBM's Baldrige award-winning Rochester operations report that they used Expert Choice to speed up their budget allocation decisions for their AS/400 minicomputer project. Arguments about resources had threatened to derail the project's tight schedule, and the analytical hierarchy process gave the IBM team a way out. The AS/400 project was launched in two years instead of the four years normally expected of major minicomputers development projects. Those of us who are constantly involved in making complex decisions know that arguments really consume managerial time. The software's ability to convert the most contentious criteria into hard numbers tends to speed up decisions and consensus building considerably. It must be emphasized that the software is merely an aid to the manager and does not make decisions itself. It simply systematizes and structures the basis for complex decisions so that the manager is just that much more confident of a sound verdict. (It would be interesting to throw this software at the current impeachment hearings.)
In the continuing drive for process improvement and ISO-9000 certification, many companies have suffered from the sheer drudgery of documenting all the processes of running day-to-day operations. Worse, the process documentation has to be revised, reproduced, distributed and then revised again so often, that most people I know who have been involved in such projects swear they never want to do it again. Process documentation software such as TeamFlow (http://www.teamflow.com) can be a big help. TeamFlow is very different from common business process diagramming software such as Visio in that it focuses on the relationships of people doing the process together - thus its name. Documenting the most convoluted process is a breeze with this software, and editing and revising the documentation becomes (dare I say?) almost a pleasure. The ultimate advantage of software-based process documentation is when the documentation is made available over a corporate Intranet. This enables all members of the organizations to simultaneously understand exactly how things get done and, more importantly, how each member's work impacts others. And this is certainly a good basis for beginning to improve competitiveness.
If managers were to list their most demanding tasks, crafting competitive strategies would probably rate high in the list. In fact, strategic planning is so fraught with complexity and competing considerations that many companies have entire staffs of MBAs dedicated to preparing strategic analysis.
On the opposite extreme are companies who just give up on the process and don't even do any serious strategic planning at all. Business Insight (http://www.brs-inc.com) belongs to the class of software called expert systems and may just be what managers need if they want to give strategic analysis a serious try. As with other kinds of expert systems, this software is based on dozens upon dozens of analytic rules culled from the foremost writers in strategic and marketing analysis including Porter and Kotler.
The software asks a series of questions, many of which are quite demanding in terms of data requirements, and then converts the answers into a detailed analysis of the organization's current strategy. The analysis includes a detailed overall quantitative rating of the current strategy, and sub-ratings for specific aspects of the strategy, say in product quality or pricing. If the software indicates that the overall rating is not satisfactory, the manager can simply click on a button and voila! Out comes a series of recommendations on how the strategy can be improved. I would imagine that most corporate planning staff would find it remarkable how one piece of software can produce a 100-page report with about 30 graphs that would otherwise take at least a couple of overnighters.
A note of caution, though. As with anything else involving computers, the analysis is just as good as the data fed into the software. Garbage in, garbage out.
So if you still think software is just for your staff, give some of this software a try and see if it doesn't help you somehow. After all, with the kind of competition out there right now, we all need all the help we can get.