Corporate enterprises should hold off on further IT purchases until they have worked out the human problems that hamper productivity, a management consultant says.

Dr. Stephen Murgatroyd, president of Lifeskills International, told delegates at Edmonton’s Tech Expo 2001 on Wednesday that technology-related productivity problems are costing North American companies $100 billion a year. He calls these problems “futzing,” and they include everything from searching for lost files and dealing with reboots after a system crash to playing with video games on company time.

Murgatroyd, a former academic at Athabasca University, said many organizations are disappointed by the lack of return on investment they’ve seen from various IT implementations. At least 36 per cent of all software applications, for example, are rejected or cancelled by the customer at the point of delivery because it doesn’t fulfill the expectations they have, Murgatroyd said. “Software designers don’t work closely enough with ‘front line’ people,” he said. “They work quite extensively with senior managers and buyers, but the front-line people behave completely differently.”

Many corporate users only exploit about 20 per cent of a software program’s features, he said, and a lack of training forces them to adapt by trial and error. “Think of what would happen if we actually thought through it differently — getting them involved in the buy decision, getting them involved in training and development before we actually implement things,” he said.

Making decisions by committee can slow down the rate of change in an organization, but Murgatroyd said he is recommending that clients like Oracle and Wal-Mart take more time before they get in over their heads.

“One idea I have is, let’s not buy anything for a year,” he said. “Let’s not buy any hardware other than to make sure stuff runs. Let’s not get into all the need to upgrade and make what we have work.”

Mark Ellwood, who has been consulting on similar issues with Toronto-based Pace Productivity for 12 years, said a related issue involves the way technology alters the behavior of knowledge workers. The rise of e-mail, for example, means more senior-level people are writing their own correspondence. Web-based travel sites, meanwhile, have some CEOs booking their own flights. The Internet brings convenience, but it also shifts responsibilities that take up time. “We’ve taken all the clerical tasks and moved them upwards,” he said. “These are things the secretary used to do.”

IT also brings out unexpected side-effects like viruses and learning curves, Ellwood added. “It gives us more options,” he said. “Whereas I used to spend an hour analyzing research, now I get to analyze it 10 more ways because I’ve got more tools to produce more charts, tables and graphs.” The results don’t allow our brains to work any better but to process more.

Coming from a background in psychology, Murgatroyd said the IT industry should make more effort to adapt products the way humans take information in.

“If you look at what we know about how adults learn, it’s amazing that programmers don’t know about that stuff, because it would really help software to be better used,” he said. In word processing applications, for example, there is a tendency with software firms to add features, but Murgatroyd said it might be better to take features away. “How many fonts can you read in a lifetime? Maybe we just need 20 fonts that everyone uses in the world. Rather than complexity and more functionality is less functionality and simplicity.”

The impact of productivity on the bottom line means that companies should rethink the qualifications of their CIOs, Murgatroyd added.

“You should never hire a chief information officer who’s a technologist,” he said. “You should always hire somebody who comes from the line and knows what the business is about and can see what technology you can actually use. You can learn about the technology real fast.”

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