Management software can't replace managers

You manage IT people but, can you manage people with IT? That's what several recently developed software tools purport to do. Managers using these products allegedly can optimize personnel assignments and availability, ensure that employees are meeting performance goals and make better business decisions. Skeptics will reply that management and employee motivation shouldn't be machined, lest people become "the tools of their tools," in the words of Henry David Thoreau. It's absolutely true that software cannot substitute for face-to-face interaction, but in a market where computing power is cheap and human capital is dear, using IT to optimize your workforce is only sensible.

Besides, automating business practices is what IT is all about. Yet CIOs are often reluctant to practice what they preach, says Chuck Tatham, vice president of marketing for Changepoint, a Richmond Hill, Canada, company that makes business process automation software for corporate IT departments and IT services companies. "IT departments are like the shoemaker's children. They've done a good job of automating others, but not always their own operations," he says.

Juana Clark, director of applications management at Baltimore Gas and Electric, bought Changepoint software to help manage her IT operation. In the initial rollout this past June, she implemented time and expense reporting and project management functions. In January, part two of the rollout involved converting work requests and internal billing processes to Changepoint's system, which integrates all of the standard IT service delivery functions. What sold Clark on Changepoint was its design specifically for IT departments. In addition, a Web-based intranet portal makes it easy for her and the entire IT group to get an at-a-glance read on what everyone is working on. "I need visibility into everything my people are doing, even if they're not doing it for me," says Clark. "What projects are they working on? Where are they spending time?" Changepoint has been well received at Baltimore Gas and Electric, she says-not only by her but also by her staff. By accessing and reporting in the familiar icon-based interface, IT workers at the utility say they feel more aware of what's going on and more connected to organizational goals.

Binding employee activity with organizational goals is the purpose of another man-agement app developed by Performaworks. Founded in 1997 in Raleigh, North Carolina, by a team of industrial psychologists, management executives and software developers, Performaworks offers a suite of Web-based performance management tools that quantify the alignment of employee activities with managerial directives. Performaworks software first prompts executives to write down organizational goals-a valuable exercise in itself-and then communicates these throughout the hierarchy. Employees at all levels enter into the system their individual plans for meeting the goals. Performaworks CEO Jim Perry, who uses the product to manage his own company, explains its usefulness this way: "Performaworks gives executives and line managers preemptive intelligence around their human assets so that they can evaluate at any frequency-daily, weekly, monthly-where they stand relative to company strategy. And they can move proactively to correct their course, rather than finding out six or nine months down the line that they've veered off."

ViaLink, a Dallas-based provider of e-commerce functions for food, retail, service and hospitality clients, began using Performaworks's eWorkbench product in March 2000 to manage and monitor goal-setting and achievements of its 124 employees. "EWorkbench provides us with a magnetic north-to keep focus on things that are really going to keep the business moving forward," says Senior Vice President of Operations David Lloyd. In a fast-paced e-business environment, getting people focused on short- to midterm goals that are aligned with long-term objectives is difficult but essential, he says. Performaworks achieves that by providing regular notification to employees and managers alike of milestones being achieved or missed and goals changing. "It makes you pay attention to what people are doing and ask whether they are engaged in meaningful tasks," Lloyd says. "In so many companies, people set goals and objectives, stick 'em in the drawer and forget about them. Performaworks doesn't let you do that. The biggest surprise of all is that at the end of the quarter, there are no surprises."

The communication of goals that Performaworks engenders isn't one way. Once executives and managers convey a structured list of benchmarks and expectations down the organizational chain, employees have regular opportunities to give feedback on their own needs and concerns, indicating what additional resources or education may be needed to meet corporate objectives. The system incorporates employee performance and feedback results so that a manager and an employee can establish a consensus on what actions and professional goals should be pursued. A journal function also gives employees a chance to note what did or didn't work especially well on any project. Managers can incorporate all of this information to generate graphically rich reports that give a clear sense of how their objectives are being carried throughout their department.

This ongoing communication process takes some of the politics out of managing and being managed, Lloyd says, and boosts the usefulness of employee evaluations. "People want to do a good job. They want to know what they're expected to accomplish, and they appreciate help and guidance in those pursuits," he says. "EWorkbench makes it very clear: Here's what you need to do to be successful, here's what tasks or goals are most important. That makes for a much more meaningful and objective discussion when you talk about performance and compensation. It drives a lot of the subjectivity out of it."

But beware: While IT tools have their uses in management, they're not a substitute for managers. Removing subjectivity is one thing, removing humanity is another, says Bonnie A. Nardi, a design anthropologist for Agilent Technologies in Palo Alto, California, who has studied office interactions. "In terms of communicating goals and priorities, you can never do too much. And any system that helps you do that is probably a good thing." Yet a lot of work gets done through informal, water-cooler conversations that can't easily be codified on a computer screen, says Nardi, who coauthored Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart (MIT Press, 1999). "It's important that people feel connected and accountable to each other, that they still have simple, informal interactions. When you introduce automated systems, relationships are changed, and not always in a positive way. You lose informal communication. So a diverse approach is best, using both electronic tools and human-to-human contact."

A third IT tool for managing, Expert Choice 2000, was designed to take human subjectivity into account. This decision-making tool enables managerial teams to make considered, deliberate judgments about complex situations that comprise both quantitative and qualitative components. Expert Choice 2000 is based on the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) decision-making methodology developed by Thomas Saaty in the 1970s at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. AHP has slowly gained favor in corporate and government circles during the past three decades, leading Saaty to form Expert Choice, a Pittsburgh-based software company. The latest version of the software assists executives in developing a hierarchical tree of goals, priorities, tradeoffs and alternatives. The model integrates not only the financial side of a problem but also value-based opinion aspects by asking executives to assign weights to goals and objectives. (To avoid gamesmanship, participants can use radio frequency keypads when scoring their positions.) By graphically illustrating the interplay among different goals and opinions, the software points the way toward a decision, even listing priorities in order of importance. Executives can then vote on courses of action.

Debra Stouffer, deputy CIO for IT reform at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, uses Expert Choice for the agency's IT capital planning and investment. "The software actually forces project managers to make the effort to clarify the value of their projects-because if they can't, they will not get money," she says. "We save valuable time by reviewing the projects in a portfolio framework and by terminating useless projects before they drain valuable resources. We have better control over our projects by managing them continuously rather than periodically. And we don't have to start from scratch every year because our IT portfolio model becomes a living representation of our IT organization."

Stouffer finds Expert Choice particularly valuable for IT projects. She notes that, especially in large organizations, executives often fail to communicate priorities to IT project managers. That can leave project managers guessing on which IT investments are most important to the organization-a potentially costly gamble. Expert Choice contains a feedback mechanism that allows project managers to assess the relative value of their work versus company goals. Their feedback, once entered into the decision-making model, could potentially change the entire equation.

Far from replacing human judgment with computer processing, tools like Expert Choice, Changepoint and the Performa-works suite can improve the way people work. These IT tools for management do the legwork required for good organizational planning. And after all, what could be more natural than using IT for IT workers?

David T. Gordon is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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