Taming the beast Featured

9:01pm EDT August 31, 2011
Taming the beast

If you stripped out all of the technology from your business, what would you be left with? Could you process payroll? Communicate with customers and employees? Schedule production runs?

More than likely, there would be very little you could actually accomplish. There might be some short-term workarounds you could come up with, but business as you know it would grind to a halt because technology is the backbone of everything we do.

As CEO, the biggest challenge is sometimes just understanding the problem. When technology doesn’t work, you hear about it, and you can often see it affect your bottom line. But the solutions are always costly and typically hard to understand. Without a computer engineering background, you’re left trying to find the rhyme or reason to an expensive solution that probably consists of a bunch of acronyms and industry buzzwords. Servers, routers, network interfaces, nodes, firewalls and bandwidth are all tied together into a Gordian knot that somehow allows you send an e-mail through the cloud to your assistant or forward a proposal to a customer. If one piece breaks, the whole system comes crashing down and the chorus of complaints starts working its way up to the corner office.

Unfortunately, every time a piece breaks, there seems to be a five- or six-figure solution to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. And much like getting your car repaired, the first “fix” doesn’t always solve the problem, so then another proposal shows up on your desk to add even more money and equipment to the solution. For the amount of money you’ve invested, you feel like you should have a Death Star floating around the back room somewhere, but all you get out of the deal is e-mail that doesn’t crash every two hours.

The challenge for the CEO is figuring out where you belong in the process. You probably don’t have a computer background, so you can’t get tangled up in wires or be mapping out networks. But with so much revenue and profit tied up in functioning technology, you can’t afford to not play any role at all. Completely turning over the technology decisions to the IT experts isn’t always the best idea because they don’t always understand the business functionality that is critical to making money. What the IT team sees as a great idea to connect to customers, the sales team often views as an unneeded (and unused) piece of software.

Going the other way often yields equally bad results. Employees who are given everything they want from a technology standpoint may help some individual productivity, but it saps the ability of the IT department to be effective as it scrambles to maintain a menagerie of technology that wasn’t designed to interface, and while trying to be jacks of all trades, the IT team ends up being a master of none.

A.G. Lafley, the former chairman, president and CEO of Procter & Gamble, credits some of his success in innovation and management to working with his scientists and the technology people to connect ideas of what was possible to customers. It wasn’t just technology driving decisions, and it wasn’t just salespeople making demands about what they wanted.

So how should you approach technology in your organization? Take the Ronald Reagan approach — trust but verify. You need to have the best IT people you can afford, whether they are in-house or consultants. You need to trust their judgment the same way you want to trust your lawyer’s or banker’s judgment. Get your leadership team involved in finding appropriate technology solutions so that everyone is happy with the end result.

But when a proposal comes across your desk, challenge it. Is there a cheaper solution that would achieve the same result? Make them explain what the technology does and how it will improve your business operations. Is there someone you can call for a second opinion? Once you have all the facts, you can make a decision as to whether the money spent will yield the business results you need to be successful, because in the end, it’s about profit.

You don’t want to be paying for a Death Star-solution when a new server will do just fine.

FRED KOURY is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or fkoury@sbnonline.com.