Office Technology Trends

It's the Office Jim...but not as we know it

On a clear day, as the song goes, you can see forever, or at least the familiar features of the landscape may be cast in a new and revealing perspective. So perhaps a short flight provides a good time to take stock of the broad contours of developments in office technology. The size of many businesses inherently limits the resource available for management of IT. Even those organisations that have listed parents sometimes find that, having distinct markets and products, they gain little from the IT resources of the group. Few will consider IT management as a core competence. So a particular dilemma for those leading many organisations is to reap the attainable benefits of IT without the IT management expertise that large organisations can call upon.

Pick a winner

If you have read this far you may find alarm bells ringing; most organisations have at least one cautionary tale to tell of a notorious IT project disaster. Neither has the frenzied scrabble in the name of e-business done anything to assuage these legitimate fears. Can a manager distinguish the projects that genuinely deliver a significant impact for the bottom line from the lame ducks? It is little comfort to know that counterparts in other organisations feel ill equipped for this challenge. This article bypasses industry IT speak to take an impartial look at several key office technologies that will have significant relevance for many services organisations, offshore or onshore.

Client relationship management has been in the spotlight since the at least the early 1990s. The area has become particularly important for many businesses now that packages are available that can be quickly and cheaply adapted to the relationship management needs of individual businesses. The territory does however need to be approached with care as conventional interest in "CRM" has mostly focused on the impersonal mass market. In contrast, a typical professional services firm might expect to develop more intimate and genuinely personal relationships with fewer clients. However, it is good to note that some of the market leading products designed for say, legal services or trusts administration are beginning to offer true relationship management support. But the relevance of this functionality extends to most businesses and there are some noteworthy examples to be seen in the public sector. The territory can include integration of the phone on your desktop with your systems ("CTI"). Sometimes easy to implement, CTI can help busy people raise the service level at a stroke. This application of the technology contrasts with proliferating voice response systems that one might suspect have been installed as a means of inhibiting customer access. Any organisation whose customers form views on the value of the service provided from the moments of personal interaction will do well to think carefully before implementing such systems. On the other hand, if customer perception is overshadowed by cost control objectives this technology may be for you.

Knowledge management has been so much in vogue that the significance for services organisations may be obscured - particularly if someone obsessed with installing an intranet has already usurped this territory in your business. However, some of the most successful law firms have long understood the central role of "know how" to their success. But here too the relevance extends to much of the service sector. The technology to make it simple to capture and reuse some kinds of knowledge is easy and inexpensive to implement. For example, an individual who is a skilled user of the Internet has resources at her disposal that only the largest organisation could boast just a few years ago. For many businesses the ability to marry these facilities with the way people work with knowledge is the primary stumbling block to focus on here.

Most businesses will have looked at document management in the past few years. Indeed many businesses routinely scan documents at the end of their useful lives for archiving. As the technology has matured prices have tumbled and it is now feasible to use an electronic document as the primary record - not to create the paperless office, but the wait-less office. With equipment that integrates printing, scanning and copying now easily available, a business case can sometimes be made on cost saving alone. But asking what this will do for service quality or productivity, may lead to some surprising answers. The power of the technology to store and retrieve documents has no parallel in the paper world. Some organisations will also combine this with off the shelf workflow features that can improve response times.

So much ink has been spilled on the Internet that it might seem futile to comment further. But for services businesses the Internet has quietly opened up the prospect of cheap connections to other locations, using virtual private network technology. Now even the smallest business can have a network spanning locations that only the multinational might have considered a few years ago. Where recruitment of skilled staff and the cost base are critical issues the importance of this new opportunity should be obvious and under review in many organisations right now. If you were advised to dismiss this one on grounds of security, think again.

Finally management might usefully be included in our panorama. Simplistic views of technology expect efficiency benefits, but more significant impacts may arise in respect of customer service, capability to offer new services not possible before, redrawing of organisational boundaries and so on. Beyond this, technology can also provide the information needed to manage better. The dictum "what you measure is what you manage" has a grain of truth. The last decade has seen many organisations grapple with the implementation of a balanced scorecard, a set of measures that go beyond the financial to capture all those things that a business must get right if it is too succeed. As the penetration of technology has spread from back office / accounting to touch most areas of the business it has become possible to devise measures that provide a more trustworthy indicator of business health than financials ever could. When these measures are then intelligently woven into the continuing management process (including performance management) they can communicate direction and priorities in ways that were previously not possible.

Just do it!

This short article can only hint at some of the more interesting possibilities that organisations have before them, possibilities that are already being grasped by businesses everywhere. Selecting those that are worth implementing in your situation depends on recognising the costs and understanding benefits in relation to the key factors that underpin your current and future success. It also depends on the equally challenging precondition of effectively leading those people affected by the technology. While you may find it helpful to look at what others are doing or even to invite independent advice, trust your own judgement - you are uniquely placed to understand what makes for the success of your business.


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