In today’s world, few things change as quickly as technology. Add to this the fact that technology change is usually toward greater complexity, and it becomes easy to see why some executives throw up their hands in exasperation when attempting to manage technology. Technology, however, is a key driver in execution and in maintaining your company’s competitive advantage — it can’t be ignored or delegated.
“One of the keys to managing technology is to not lose sight of the fact that it is a means to an end, not an end itself,” says Kirk O’Hara, vice president, consulting services at Executive Career Services.
“Executives need to understand the essential purpose of technology in their business, be able to incorporate it into their strategic plan and know how to easily and efficiently adapt new technology into business systems and operations,” he says.
Smart Business spoke with O’Hara about what executives need to know about integrating technology into their companies.
What should executives understand about technology and using it to execute business functions?
Leveraging technology starts with an understanding of how it can be used as a strategic resource. Every strategic plan should have a section devoted to technology and its role in driving the mission. This means that the IT department needs to be integrated into the company’s mission and not seen as an ad hoc department to go to when there are problems. In this respect, IT can be seen as going through the same sort of transformation that human resources did a couple of decades ago. Prior to that, HR was typically called ‘personnel’ and was seen as a necessary evil to avoid problems. Today, HR is viewed as a valuable strategic partner and talent management is a major concern of most executives. It is time for IT to be elevated to the same position.
Most executives do not need to get into the details of how technology works, but they should be familiar with the basic input, throughput, output cycle. For example, what data need to be collected for the input of business systems such as accounting, inventory control and customer relationship management? Remember the IT adage ‘GIGO’ — garbage in, garbage out. Collecting the data necessary to run a business is essential to maintaining a strategic advantage.
How involved should executives be with a company’s technology?
Executives should be intricately involved in the output. What reports are needed to properly manage cash flow, maintain optimal inventory levels and keep an eye on customer relationships? Part of the value of technology is that it can spew out a tremendous amount of information. In this regard, it is easy for executives to request too many reports and get lost in the information overload. The same can be said of business unit leaders and departmental managers. Monthly and quarterly reports accumulate over time and may never be used to make business decisions. Executives may want to try this simple technique. Occasionally discontinue a report and see if anyone notices it is missing. If no one complains, it is a safe bet that the report isn’t necessary.
Should a company make sure it has the latest hardware and software?
Throughput considerations will typically involve matters of technology, such as hardware and software upgrades. While it may seem wise to always have the latest and greatest technology, this isn’t always the case. Software updates often have bugs and new hardware may have higher failure rates. Unless your company is very technology dependent, it may be wise to put off updates until they have proven themselves in the business world, and only then when it is clear that the upgrades will have material benefit.
Leveraging technology isn’t all about systems. Executives also need to be sure that they are using personal technology efficiently and effectively. Smartphones and tablets are quickly replacing laptop PCs. Text messaging is replacing voicemail and email is a ubiquitous part of everyone’s work life. In addition to ensuring that technology is used as a strategic resource for the company, executives need to be sure that their personal use of technology is efficient.
How much should a company rely on technology to do business?
Above all, executives should ensure that in-person face-to-face communications aren’t lost in the crush of today’s workload. In-person meetings are essential when forming new teams, creating and nurturing new relationships and/or discussing areas that are emotionally laden or when intended messages can be easily misinterpreted. Email notes have their advantages, to be sure. They allow for a wide distribution where everyone receives the same message and they serve as historical records for documenting what was said.
Too many managers, however, try to manage through email, and this is poor technique. In particular, some executives will rely on an email note to convey a difficult message, for example, to address a conflict. A good executive will never opt to use email when a personal conversation is indicated.
Technology has pervaded — some will say invaded — virtually every aspect of our professional lives. We don’t need to get tangled up by it, however, if we keep the focus on how it can be used as a strategic advantage and never allow it to replace interpersonal interaction.
Still having trouble getting your head around technology? Find an IT liaison who speaks your language. After all, they are people, too.
Kirk O’Hara is a vice president of consulting services at Executive Career Services. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.