Capability in Context

January 4, 2008 at 10:33 am 1 comment

Many years ago I was handed an assignment which would cause any technologist to drool over their keyboards. At the time I was working for a retail company with about 100 stores spread across Canada. The question raised by management was “should we install personal computers into the stores to improve store efficiency?”

The motivation for the question was obvious. PCs at head office were delivering huge gains in productivity. If this was possible at head office, was it also possible in the stores? If it was, then it would reduce store workload allowing store management more time on the sales floor.

To answer the question, a consultant – yours truly – was sent into a store for six months. The rationale was that there was no better way to gain store experience/knowledge than by assuming the role of a store employee. I was given no other responsibility but to observe the store, identify all store activities that might benefit from a local PC. Once the six month sojourn was complete I was to present a report and a conclusion. Oh… I also had regular store duties. I offloaded trucks, did inventory and sold goods.

The in-store experience was invaluable. It is one thing to have an intellectual understanding of how your company operates, and something else entirely to be a part of that process. To put it very bluntly… there’s a very good reason why the ‘field’ nearly always believes that ‘head office’ is populated by fools. This isn’t readily apparent until you are given totally contradictory prime directives… sell more… and always complete the paperwork.

It convinced me, beyond all reasonable doubt, that to intelligently integrate computers into an environment, one must be more than casually acquainted with that environment.

To that end we did something rather unusual. Stores received information in the form of memos, updates, shipping lists, inventory sheets, sales figures, employee schedules etc. etc. from every department in the organization. Since nobody at head office had an accurate sense of how much info was being sent out, we had to correct this. The solution was to identify the CEO’s office as store #999 and everything sent to the stores was also sent to his office and piled on a desk. The CEO had only to ‘read’ everything sent to him. That alone reduced the flood of info being sent to the stores, as he began to complain there was far too much junk in his growing store pile.

The final report concluded there was no question that PCs, properly used to manage store activities by properly trained store managers, would significantly reduce store work load allowing managers to work the floor and increase sales…

BUT… far greater and more immediate gains were achievable, if we reduced the amount of paperwork sent to the stores. Conclusion? Do not automate anything until what you’re already doing makes sense.

To my great surprise, this conclusion wasn’t embraced. There was a covert belief that we could find the solution to the problem of overworked managers in technology, and not in changing existing management practices. It was perceived that spending money to put PCs in the stores was an ‘easier’ solution than changing the existing Status Quo.

Here are the prime highlights of the ‘context’ into which we’d have catapulted the PCs:

i) Store employees, including managers, were not hired for their technical expertise. The effort necessary to bring a geographically dispersed group to the necessary level of technical competence, while taking turnover statistics into account, would be huge, expensive and ongoing.

ii) The development time necessary to create a system capable of supporting all the existing, and rapidly evolving, paperwork would take at least 2-3 years.

iii) Store managers motivated to sell would ignore our efforts to achieve that objective. They would ignore/resist the automation project.

These issues by themselves, were sufficient reason not to introduce PCs into the stores.

Regardless of how capable technology is, the readiness of the users to take advantage of the technology is the determining factor of the final result.


Entry filed under: Change, Change Management, Customer Service, innovation, Leadership, Management, Managing, Problem Solving, Technology.

In Ignorance of Aptitude Why do we GO to work?

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