Forget Trends; Is It the Right Tool for the Task?

BOSTON (06/12/2000) - This one is for the management fashion victims - and for those who don't want to be counted among them.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that re-engineering and total quality management(TQM) could prove more useful than ever now that companies have had years of experience working with them. Rather than being regarded as dying trends, they should be thought of as just two more tools in the manager's workbench.

The important question isn't whether a trend is dead or alive, but whether it's the right tool for the job. For IT leaders, there are additional questions:

Which tools should they be sure to support? Which tools are line managers using, and what are their attitudes toward management tools?

The latest edition of a survey by Bain & Co. provides important answers. Once per year, this Boston management-consulting firm surveys executives around the world - 214 in North America in the study just released - on which management tools they use and which ones they find most effective.

Companies in North America are using fewer management tools: 11.3 on average last year, compared with 13.6 in 1998. And when they undergo a major business initiative, they rely on still fewer to carry it out - just 4.8 tools.

Managers are sticking with familiar tools, rather than trying new ones, says Darrell Rigby, the Bain director responsible for the survey.

Comprehensive strategic-planning processes, mission and vision statements, benchmarking and customer-satisfaction measurements are the only ones used by more than two-thirds of managers - and they have the lowest abandonment rates.

The tools that managers most commonly use tend to be those they find most effective. But there are several notable exceptions, such as one-to-one marketing (marketing that focuses on individual customers) and cycle-time reduction (reducing the time required to perform business processes). Both earned the highest satisfaction results of any tool for helping to improve financial results - the most important performance measure for executives.

Managers don't put too much trust in tools: More than 80 percent say that most tools promise more than they deliver. The one they trust least? Knowledge management, which once again had the lowest scores for effectiveness of the 25 tools in the survey. TQM and re-engineering were in the middle of the pack for usage and satisfaction, although TQM fared better for satisfaction.

Why the decrease in tools? It's the speed of the new economy and the strength of the overall economy. Managers, Bain's researchers found, feel understaffed and short of time, so they'd rather stick with a few well-understood techniques than play with new ones. I suspect the Internet also explains why one-to-one marketing and cycle-time reduction did so well. Both are greatly enabled by Internet technologies, giving e-commerce the leg up over traditional ways of conducting business.

The bottom line for U.S. IT leaders is this: Executives aren't much in the mood for trying out new nostrums. Those that seem to be getting management's attention - and making the biggest difference - focus on strategy, speed and growth.

So don't ask if a trend is hot or not. Ask instead:

-- Are you chasing fads, or are you supporting or ignoring the tools executives use and trust most?

-- Can you justify time spent on tools that have little support, such as knowledge management?

-- Are you putting as much emphasis on growth and strategy creation as other executives? More important, do other executives feel you are?

Allan E. Alter, a former Computerworld editor, is the editor in chief of MIT's Sloan Management Review. Contact him at alter@mit.edu.

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