Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Technology Is the Tool, People Are the Key

By Douglas Gantenbein
Technology is everywhere in the workplace—in laptop computers, personal digital assistants, "smart" wireless telephones, the Internet, and business servers. But people remain the core of any business. Their brains, their experience, their dedication to business success are what make a business leap ahead of its competition. The job of technology is to help people make the most of their talents and abilities. At Microsoft, we believe that the right technology is more than a tool. It is a lever that magnifies the efforts of employees and managers, and in the process, transforms how business gets done.

Technology Must Empower People
Gartner, Inc., a technology research firm, says that worldwide, IT spending will top $2.6 trillion in 2006. This figure includes spending on hardware, software, IT services, and telecommunications. Yet Gartner analysts also note that at the vast majority of companies making investments in technology, managers complain that information overload can slow decision-making and actually impede a business’s efforts.

The solution, say analysts, is to use technology to untie the knot sometimes created by information, not tangle it further. Investment in a "high-performance workplace," says Gartner Group Vice President Tom Austin, can increase competitiveness, add value, and make the most of what is most companies’ largest asset: their employees. Businesses must "empower individuals and raise the quality and impact of what people do," Austin says. "High-performance workplace strategies raise the impact of skilled people."

Among those strategies is developing technology that helps people manage multiple streams of information, enables them to identify trends and patterns, and gives them the tools to connect and collaborate with colleagues. "The benefits of these technologies can be measured in high productivity, increased idea generation, and improved relevance and quality," says Austin.

Changing the Way People Work
Examples of what Austin sees as the key to business success can today be found around the world. For example, at Zurich International Airport, one of Europe’s busiest transportation hubs, 1300 airport partners and about 20,000 employees juggle hundreds of flights and thousands of passengers each day. If any link of that partner and employee network breaks, whether it’s a de-icing crew or a food-service van, the entire airport may start to fall behind.

To help manage their complex business, Zurich International Airport managers worked with Microsoft partners to develop a powerful software program called ZEUS. ZEUS collects and displays information from across the airport—flight data, on-time statistics, baggage-handling status, and more. That means the employees of Unique, the private company that runs the airport, are constantly aware of how the airport is functioning and where problems might arise.

"An airport runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so it’s very important for managers to have access at all times to important data so that we are informed on what’s going on daily," says Josef Felder, chief executive officer of Unique. "I love the system because, besides the usual facts and figures, it also shows a lot of diagrams. Within two or three minutes I have a full picture of what is happening at the airport that day."

ZEUS perfectly exemplifies what technology should accomplish: it takes vast amounts of disparate information and packages it so that employees can use their knowledge and experience to act on that information. That’s what creates a high-performance workplace, and it’s true whether an employee is dealing with an airplane stuck at a boarding gate, a request by a bank customer for a clear picture of mortgage offerings, or a building manager who wants to reduce heating and cooling costs.

Leveraging Information to Help People—and a Business
In situation after situation, technology can be used to collect, analyze, and package information so that it becomes a marvelously useful tool for a business and its employees. A service company with far-flung technicians uses wireless laptops to constantly update its knowledge base of solutions to problems arising across the country. A hospital deploys a system that enables physicians miles away to see a patient’s vital signs during surgery, helping doctors on the scene solve life-threatening problems. A financial services company gives its agents tools to quickly analyze customer portfolios or sift through hundreds of customers to find those with a particular stock.

All of these solutions share common qualities. They focus on the user by helping ensure ease of use and demonstrating an understanding of how people actually perform their jobs. They work well with familiar programs and technologies, so that employees don’t waste valuable time learning complex, proprietary systems. And they fit well with the systems companies already have implemented. The result is tools that are quickly and effectively put to work by those using them.

As author John Naisbitt said many years ago, we are drowning in information, but starved for knowledge. Today’s technology must do more than simply vacuum up more information. It must deploy that information in the service of those who use it. That creates knowledge about how to better serve customers, develop innovative ideas, or speed time to market for great products. When information is put to work in the service of a business and its employees, rather than as an obstacle or a daunting task, great things happen.

Douglas Gantenbein

Douglas Gantenbein
Seattle-area journalist Douglas Gantenbein has written often on business and technology and other subjects for Business 2.0, The Wall Street Journal, Outside, Slate, Smithsonian,, and other publications and Web sites.

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