How much access do your employees have to Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, GroupOn, FourSquare, and texting in their daily work, on their daily technology devices?  Do you encourage use, or do you in fact block access, in the search for greater security, and on the belief that you achieve higher productivity by killing access to these “work cycle stealers?”  Do you implement policies keeping employees from using their own technology tools (smartphone or tablet) on the job?

In 1984 the PC revolution was still quite young.  Pizza Hut was then a division of PepsiCo (now part of Yum Brands,) and the company was fully committed to a set of mainframe applications from IBM.  Mainframe applications, accessed via a “green screen” terminal were used for all document creation, financial analysis, and even all printing.  The CIO was very proud of his IBM mainframe data center, and his tight control over the application base and users. 

In what seemed like an almost overnight series of events, headquarters employees started bringing small PC’s to work in order to build spreadsheets, create documents and print miscellaneous memos.  They found the new technology so much easier to use, and purchase cost so cheap, that their productivity soared and they were able to please their bosses while leaving work on time.  A good trade-off.

The CIO went ballistic.  “These PCs are popping up like popcorn around here – and we have to kill this trend before it gains any additional momentum!” he decried in an executive meeting.  PCs were “toys” that lacked the “robustness” of his mainframe applications.  If users wanted higher productivity, then they simply needed to spend more time in training. 

Additionally, if he didn’t control access to computing cycles, and activities like printing, employees would go berserk using unnecessary resources on projects they probably should never undertake.  He was servicing the corporation by keeping people on a narrow tool set – and it gave the company control over what employees could do as well as how they could do it making sure nothing frivolous was happening.  For all these reasons, plus the fact that he could assure security on his mainframe, he felt it important that the CEO and executive team commit with him that PCs would not be allowed in Pizza Hut.

Retrospectively, he looks foolish (and his efforts were unsuccessful.)  PCs unleashed a wave of personal productivity that benefitted all early adopters.  They not only let employees do their work faster, but it allowed employees to develop innovative solutions to problems – often dramatically lowering overhead costs for many management tasks.  PCs, of course, swept through the workplace and in only a decade most mainframes, and their high cost, air conditioned data centers, were gone. 

Yet, to this day companies continue to use “best practices” as a tool to stop technology, and productivity improvement, adoption.  Managers will say:

  1. We need to control employee access to information
  2. We need to keep employees focused on their job, without distractions
  3. We must control how employees do their jobs so we minimize errors and improve quality
  4. We need to control employee access externally for security reasons
  5. We need consistency in our tool set and how it is used
  6. We made a big investment in how we do things, and we need to leverage that [sunk cost] by forcing greater use
  7. We need to remember that management are the experts, and it is our job to tell people how to do their jobs.  We don’t want the patients running the hospital!

It all sounds quite logical, and good management practice.  Yet, it is exactly the road to productivity reduction, innovation assassination and limited growth!  Only by allowing employees to apply their skills and best thinking can any company hope to continuously improve its productivity and competitiveness.

But, moving from history and theoretical to today’s behavior, what is happening in your company?  Do you have a clunky, hard to use, expensive ERP, CRM, accounting, HR, production, billing, vendor management, procurement or other system (or factory, distribution center or headquarters site) that you still expect people to use?  Do you demand people use it – largely for some selection of the 7 items above? Do you require they carry a company PC or Blackberry to access company systems, even as the employee carries their own Android smartphone or iPad with them 24×7?

Recently, technology provider IFS Corporation did a survey on ERP users (Does ERP Mean Excel Runs Production?) Their surprising results showed that new employees (especially under age 40) were very unlikely to take a job with a company if they had to use a complex (usually vendor supplied) interface to a legacy application.  In fact, 75% of today’s users are actively seeking – and using – cloud based apps or home grown spreadsheets to manage the business rather than the expensive applications the corporation supplied!  Additionally, between 1/3 and 2/3 of employees (depending upon age) were actively seeking to quit and take another job simply because they found the technology of their company hard to use! (CIO Magazine: Employees Refusing to Use Clunky Enterprise Software.)

Unlike managers invested in historical decisions, and legacy assets, employees understand that without productivity their long-term employment is at risk.  They recognize that constantly shifting markets, with global competitors, requires the flexibility to apply novel thinking and test new solutions constantly.  To succeed, the workforce – all the workforce – needs to be informed, interacting with potential new solutions, thinking and applying their best thoughts to creating new solutions that advance the company’s competitiveness.

That’s why Fast Company recently published something all younger managers know, yet shocks older ones: “Half of Young Professionals Value Facebook Access, Smartphone Options Over Salary.” It surprised a lot of people to learn that employees would actually select access over more pay!

While most older leaders and managers think this is likely because employees want to screw off on the job, and ignore company policies, the article cites a Cisco Connected World Technology Report which describs how these employees value productivity, and realize that in today’s world you can’t really be productive, innovative and generate growth if you don’t have access – and the ability to use – modern tools. 

Today’s young workers aren’t any less diligent about work than the previous generation, they are simply better informed and more technology savvy!  They think even more long-term about the company’s survivability, as well as their ability to make a difference in the company’s success.

In other words, in 2011 tools like Linked-in, Facebook, Twitter et. al. accessed via a tablet or smartphone are the equivalent of the PC 30 years ago.  They give rapid access to what customers, competitors and others in the world are doing.  They allow employees to quickly answer questions about current problems, and find new solutions.  As well as find people who have tried various options, and learn from those experiences.  And they allow the employee to connect with a company problem fast – whether at work or away – and start to solve it!  They can access those within their company, vendors, customers – anyone – rapidly in order to solve problems as quickly as possible.

At a recent conference I asked IT leaders for several major airlines if they allowed employees to access these tools.  Uniformly, the answer was no.  That may be the reason we all struggle with the behavior of airlines, I bemoaned.  It might explain why the vast majority of customers were highly sympathetic with the flight attendant that jettisoned a plane through the emergency exit with a beer in hand!   At the very least, it is a symptom of the internal focus that has kept the major airlines from pleasing 85% of their customers, while struggling to be profitable.  If nobody has external access, how can anybody make anything better?

The best practices of 1975 don’t cut it in 2012.  The world has changed.  It is more important now than ever that employees have the access to modern tools, and the freedom to use them.  Good management today is not about telling people how to do their job, but rather letting them figure out how to do the job best.  Implement that practice and productivity and innovation will show themselves, and you’re highly likely to find more growth!