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IT Strategy: Keep IT simple

If you think that technology is the bane of your life, spare
a thought for the employees of Clerical Medical ­ they’re unfortunate enough to
be managed by it.
Not only that, they’ve been managed by it for the past 18 years. In fact,
several staff are likely to have spent their entire adult lives being told what
to do and when by computers. (I have an image of tie-wearing HP servers, with
LEDs for eyes, reminding data entry staff that they only have 30 minutes for
lunch.) Of course, the reality is nowhere near as much fun.

Clerical Medical is a client of eg Solutions, a Staffordshire-based software
company founded by Elizabeth Gooch. The software provides a view of the projects
that staff are working on and the ones they should be assigned to next,
depending on a number of criteria. So successful can implementations be that,
according to Gooch, the software’s reporting tool only provides feedback on team
results, rather than on an individual basis. “We didn’t want it to automate the
role of the manager,” she explains.

Eg Solutions’ products are typically sold into the financial services sector,
but would be equally at home in any sector with a large amount of repetitive,
transactional-based activity. In fact, it has its roots in the manufacturing
sector ­ Gooch saw the potential of transferring the types of efficiencies that
production lines offer into office-based environments.

Co-operative Bank Financial Services is another client of eg Solutions. It
has deployed the software throughout the entire organisation ­ including the
finance team ­ to improve customer service and reduce costs at the same time.
While it does raise the alarming prospect of teams of accountants being managed
by computers, so far, so good ­ costs have been reduced by 35% and considerable
improvements made to customer service.

The software ­ which, perhaps not surprisingly, Gooch describes as a superior
version of business process management ­ is an example of how simple technology
should be. There is no rocket science here. By recognising a problem which
affects the vast majority of companies to one extent or another ­ staff
inefficiency ­ and coming up with a way of combating it, eg Solutions has forged
a very successful niche.
And while this may not be reflected in the company’s share price ­ it has
plummeted from a high of over 150p to today’s price of around 45p following a
couple of profit warnings ­ it is reflected in customer testimonials.

If only all technology was as simple. Examples of over-complex solutions to
relatively simple problems are not exactly in short supply. How many of us have
a satellite navigation system installed in our cars? Yet how many stories have
there been of drivers being sent on ridiculous routes as a result? There are
several instances of cars trying to ford rivers at the behest of their beloved
gizmo only to float away into the sea. And in February a young woman was
directed onto a railway line by her satellite navigation system ­ only for a
train to smash into her car seconds afterwards and carry it half-a-mile towards
Swansea. (Luckily the woman was not in the vehicle at the time).

“We would advise people to use sat navs with due caution,” was the
understated statement from British Transport Police following the accident. And
the same advice could well be extended to corporate IT projects. Bling doesn’t
necessarily mean that something is valuable.

John Tate, an IT consultant and technology adviser to the Charity Finance
Directors’ Group, illustrates the point well. Together with Cass Business
School, they came up with the hypothesis that charities often get far more value
out of their IT projects. Why? Because they have less money to spend. “Big
budgets don’t necessarily mean successful IT projects,” he says. And how right
he is.

This page is often used to try and champion the benefits of technology; to
spell out the strategic importance it can offer modern companies. But sometimes
it’s necessary to take a step back and look at what, exactly, the benefits of
the technology are. Eg Solutions, for example, has helped reduce costs
significantly and, as a result, had an immediate impact on the bottom line for
most of its clients.

Of course, the easy option isn’t always the right one. Around five years ago,
Safeway took the decision to close its Tesco Club Card equivalent because of
cost and complexity reasons. In short, the IT costs required to support the
scheme were seen to completely outweigh the importance of the decisions that
were being made on the back of the data it provided. Tesco, as is well known,
took an entirely different decision, and the subsequent fortunes of the two
retailers are there for all to see.

In the end, IT strategy is all about judgement. It’s about knowing when to
sign those cheques. And it’s about knowing when to send your CIO packing. Let’s
just hope it’s you making that judgement, and not an IBM server wearing a tie.

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