Lean on me

The advances in computer technology have been little short of amazing. During the 1970s, an additional 8,000 bytes of memory for a microcomputer ran for $4,000. Today, upgrading a home computer with an additional 260,000,000 bytes of memory costs $90. That’s a price reduction of 142,222,200 per cent.

Computer technology is no longer exclusively for the benefit of large organizations. The cost of computer technology is now so low that the even smallest office can afford to equip every employee with his or her own computer – and is expected to.

This computer revolution is an important kind of equalization of opportunity. It’s enough of an opportunity that few in business can avoid investing in computers or the Internet – whether they want to or not. The challenge isn’t finding the money to pay for the technology, but finding the understanding that will let you take full advantage of it, and avoid the very painful mistakes that can now take place at electronic speeds.

Large organizations address this challenge by hiring whole departments of computer and Internet experts. The major Canadian banks, for example, have information technology departments that number in the thousands. Even if they aren’t employed in the most effective way, that’s still a powerful amount of technology understanding. It’s one of the important ways that the playing field remains tiled in favor of larger organizations.

Smaller organizations, however, must first answer three important questions: How do you decide what technology to acquire? Who can you ask to get good advice about technology? And how do you best use this external technology advice?

A good fit

Your real challenge starts with selecting key business applications. Michael Asner is a senior consultant based in White Rock, B.C. who focuses on technology procurement. He spends most of his time advising large organizations on how buy technology. “Smaller organizations should not concentrate on technical specifications; they don’t have the people to win at that game,” advised Asner. “They should look at what others are doing in their industry.”

Focus on business requirements, he added. “A niche supplier who understands the business is often in the best position to deliver value.”

Technical specifications can be a tar pit from which you never emerge. That can be true for any organization, but it applies especially to the smaller firm. And you don’t really need to understand most technical specifications. Talk to vendors who understand your business and can explain the benefits of their proposed system in terms that make business sense to you.

However, you can’t just leave it at that. You need to go through a due diligence process, concentrating on talking to organizations similar to your own and who use the system.

Remember, buying a complex computer system is not a one-shot exercise. You will be living with the system, and its upgrades, for many years to come. The best way to get the future you need is to join a group of customers, all of who are in search of the same thing. How good do you feel about being on intimate terms with the current customers of the vendor? That’s the kind of decision that everyone in business should be able to make. Don’t get diverted into detailed technical considerations. As Asner advised, “you don’t have the people to win at that game.”

Lack of technical expertise doesn’t have to be a barrier to making sound business decisions about which applications to buy. But there will come points at which you need technology advice you can trust. Harvey Gellman was one of Canada’s first computer consultants – he began his consulting career after finishing graduate school in the 1950s. He recently retired from the position of senior vice-president with CGI Group Inc. in Toronto, and has clear memories of his experience with smaller organizations.

“The good news,” Gellman said, “is that CEOs in smaller firms will listen to their consultants. But most CEOs of smaller firms don’t recognize they need outside help.”

When it comes time to find that help, Gellman said it’s best to forget your friends. “It can be dangerous to ask friends about consultants – people are reluctant to admit they made a mistake in selecting a consultant,” he said.

Instead, Gellman recommends smaller organizations get the names of local certified management consultants from the Canadian Association of Management Consultants, or local certified information systems professionals (ISPs) from the Canadian Information Processing Society. “The CMC and ISP can’t guarantee consulting success, but they do guarantee that the consultant will have basic, professional competence,” Harvey concluded.

Ron Gilmore, president of Gilmore & Associates Inc. in Calgary, said his firm has had considerable experience working with smaller organizations. He puts special stress on the use of certified management consultants. “We specialize in providing advice,” Gilmore said. “We are the objective outsiders during critical reviews. We sit as non-voting members of steering committees. And we provide long-term coaching to teams that need greater maturity.”

Lloyd Davidson, senior technology advisor with CIBC Knowledge-Based Business in Toronto, which specializes in the banking industry, suggested another possible approach to selecting a technology advisor. He recommends asking for advice from someone who is closer to the field than you are, but not before checking out the relationship between the recommender and the recommendee. For starters, ask another consultant if he or she can suggest someone. If you don’t know any reputable consultants, ask your accountant, or your lawyer, or a computer storeowner you trust. You can also ask your banker. Don’t

just ask for a name, but find out a bit about the recommended person’s background. And find out the nature of the business relationship, if any, between the recommender and re-commendee.

Interview prospective technology advisors – they must be able to talk to you and your business concerns. Gilmore offered some advice about starting up with a new consultant, “trust develops from small initial assignments. Be wary of a ‘big’ initial proposal. And recognize that you may get what you pay for with a ‘free’ initial assignment,” he said.

Assigning a role

Once you have found a person who is a promising technology advisor, how do you best employ them?

There are a number of possible on-going relationships you can establish with a technology consultant. You could use them as a non-voting member of a steering committee. You could use them as a coach for an internal project team, brining them in for regular sessions a few times a month. You could hand the entire responsibility for technology to an outside partner. This kind of technology outsourcing can be effective, but the process you go through needs to be thought out most carefully. A steady transfer of understanding should be a part of any on-going consulting relationship.

The bottom line is technology is too important to be left to the techies. You and your people need to understand the technology choices facing your business. Your advisor must be ready, willing and able to transfer understanding. The advances in computer and networking technology are a great opportunity for smaller organizations, but you need to understand it, and be responsible for it.

Robert Fabian is director of Seneca College’s e-technology institute and an established Canadian management and system consultant. He can be reached at http://www.fabian.ca.

For more on using consultants see our story – Use me effectively and don’t abuse me.