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Go IT alone: Trust is the key

Releasing staff from the shackles of technology and giving them back control will improve productivity

The strategy of handing a task to someone else to complete when it proves too
difficult is one that I fully stand behind. Obviously, many others do too – it
explains the success of consultants, the ongoing growth of the outsourcing
industry and reiterates the importance of PAs. But a recent technology pilot by
oil behemoth BP surprised even me.

It began when Jim Ginsburgh, BP’s vice president for enterprise architecture,
noticed he was getting a better computing experience at home than he was in the
office and, more to the point, decided to do something about it.

Assuming that many staff would share his feelings, he introduced a programme
where, on receipt of an allowance, staff could buy their own computing
equipment. The catch? Those who opted to join the scheme would have to take
responsibility for all the support issues it created.

Obviously, for such a scheme to work – and be of benefit to BP rather than
create more IT chaos – it has to be extremely closely controlled. For example,
users must possess a reasonable level of computer literacy; only staff in
suitable job roles are offered the chance to join and security is handled with
great care (indeed, employees must adhere to strict levels of best practice,
while access to BP’s enterprise network and systems is available only through a
secure portal).

But the pilot programme shows incredible vision – and no small amount of
bravery – on the part of Ginsburgh and is an excellent example of recognising
which aspects of technology the average enterprise can afford to let go of.
After all, why would any company want to be burdened with the support issues of
their employees’ desktop machines and PDAs when they seem quite capable of
looking after their own equipment at home? It’s akin to employing a few
mechanics to fix their cars.

While the immediate benefits of the pilot programme may not be obvious,
Ginsburgh could well be on to something. Not only does it have the immediate
result of removing an IT support overhead from the business, but employees feel
empowered for having direct control over their own technology. And it should
also improve their computing experience too – something which is directly linked
to productivity.

BP is not the only company that has cottoned on to the idea that behaving
like a corporate version of a nanny state has only negative consequences. In
November, more than 80% of short-haul passengers who used Heathrow Terminal 4
took advantage of British Airways’ online, self-service check-in rather than the
more traditional purgatory that many of us have to go through while waiting at
an average airport check-in line. The airline has also handed its employees a
little more independence by providing tools that allow staff to manage much of
their day-to-day administrative tasks remotely over the internet.

In fact, the more you look, the more you realise that there is a minor
revolution going on in the corporate world and this is being enabled, for the
most part, by technology. Take the retail sector, where the rise of self-service
cash tills in supermarkets is another example of how businesses have recognised
the value in allowing people to do things for themselves. (Although one thing I
could never quite understand is why some retailers introduced self-service tills
complete with expensive-looking electronic signature pads just weeks before the
chip and pin regime came into force).

A story I came across recently adds more weight to the theory – an American
telco called nTelos was faced with having to meet a strict federal deadline
that, if not adhered to, could have put the company out of business. But, rather
than employ a gaggle of expensive IT consultants to do the job, the company’s
CIO decided to train his existing team to do the highly technical project. It
proved the right decision – the result was a deadline-breaking transformation, a
newly motivated team, which had learned new skills, and a significant cost
saving to boot.

Financial Director recently hosted a series of think-tanks with
finance directors from across all industry sectors. One of the fundamental
threads to come out of the sessions – and there were many – was the issue of a
lack of trust within their organisations. While we weren’t talking specifically
about technology, it was a fascinating discussion. How can you expect to perform
as a business when the company’s most important assets, its people, are
effectively shackled? Letting those shackles loose is an excellent way to
improve productivity, morale and ultimately performance. And technology is a
good place to start.

In a world where we are hardly trusted to tie our own shoelaces without
coming up against some kind of safety regulation, it is gratifying to see the
world of business and, increasingly, technology handing back some autonomy to
staff and, perhaps more crucially, customers. After all, a lack of trust is a
negative ingredient in any relationship – I’m sure BP’s Ginsburgh would agree.

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