Management Guide to IT 1983
The Human Factor 1977 - 2000
This Section of the Archive is about a broad range of management issues as related to an IT business at the end of the 20th century. It isn’t an organised discourse, more a number of snap-shots of different topics culled from surviving contemporaneous documents, magazine articles and other writings from my personal papers.
Looking back on the written words it is possible to reflect on a particular management approach which seemed to work at the time. The background is that the context was the computer/IT industry, an industry that was young, dynamic, fast-growing and rapidly changing with constant technological innovation.
I went on my first management course 6 years after leaving University. My employer, Honeywell, was an American company that had a very exacting program of management development. It was a well-managed company. Before going on the course I hadn’t given management much thought mainly because there wasn’t much time to think about anything outside the projects we were working on. We were selling computer systems that were costly, complex and challenging. We were designing systems to solve problems, doing cost/benefit and price/performance studies and advising clients on the best course of action. We tended to do the outline implementation plans but the clients then did all the detailed and much more difficult planning. We tended to manage things and events not people, apart from a few technical colleagues. We worked in small teams in a very loose matrix management format.
The first management course was therefore an eye-opener. It wasn’t about managing systems implementations. It was about managing people. From that course I took away the best definition of management I have ever seen;
“Management is deciding, in the light of the environing circumstances, what is to be done and the resources needed to do it, deploying them and then getting things done by working with people.”
It is a slight modification of the classic definition of management by Professor Tom Lupton of Manchester Business School.
In those days, probably like many people, I was confused about the difference between management and business. This is perhaps best illustrated by a recent conversation with my teenage grandson. He was studying business at school and seemed very well versed in profit and loss, debt and equity, margins, expense levels and profit before interest and tax. He knew about ratios and how to use them. His basic approach to management was, “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” I suggested that he was on course to be a business consultant and that being a businessman needed a little more. And that is the core difference. Management is about people. Business performance statistics are about measurements. As I told him the difference between a cost and a profit is; a cost is a fact and a profit is a policy. When I went on the first management course I suspect that I was expecting to learn about business. Instead I learned about people; how to recruit them, train them, equip them, appraise them, motivate them, reward them, promote them, monitor and mentor them, correct them, demote them and fire them. I learned Murphy’s Laws and O’Toole’s Law and later wrote a booklet ‘How to Plan’ [one of many ‘How To’ booklets] including both Laws. Murphy and O’Toole were the predecessors of risk assessment. We were taught downside management which was counter-intuitive for IT people at that time. O’Toole’s Law states that Murphy was an optimist. Downside management looks at the worst possible outcomes from any course of action and plans accordingly. It is the only sensible method of management.
In those management courses, the performance issue was approached basically through the budgeting process. Objectives are set, budgets are created and performance is constantly measured against budget. This is serious management. It is a system that works and can be continuously refined. We worked a Management by Objectives system which was simply- clarify your objectives or don’t start. I adopted a Rule of Five. I couldn’t remember more than five things so I never had more than five primary and secondary goals.
As I implemented increasingly complex IT systems for clients, occasionally I saw what could happen when the budget system broke down. The sales department would make a budget, manufacturing would amend the budget on the basis that ‘they will never sell that’, procurement would decide ‘production will never build that’, the accountants doing the cash flow would decide ‘we can’t sell that or build that so we will have our own numbers’ and then you have a seriously dysfunctional budget and organization. The management courses did not address the role of innovation, the critical importance of continuous improvement and the pivotal role of financial management. We learned those topics on the job, often the hard way.
The first management courses are hugely influential because they usually lay the foundation upon which subsequent management careers are built. The courses trigger intellectual and personal development. The realisation settles that management is a discipline that takes a lifetime to learn. Each individual travels an individual path. The Honeywell approach was built largely on the work done by the University of Chicago in developing organizational teamwork. In turn, that work relied on the socio-technical systems work done by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations where, years later, I was to be Chairman for a decade. Our modern world depends totally on the free exchange of ideas between interested parties.
In the computer/IT industry at that time a certain kind of management was needed. As the Chairman of a nationalised industry then in trouble said to me; “It is easier to manage a growth business than manage decline in a large business.” The answer was, “It is not easier, just different.” We spent much time in the classroom learning new technologies and new techniques. On the job, every qualified person had a trainee to mentor and develop. Promotion often hinged upon being able to pass your job to the person you had trained.
Out of this environment one developed a personal management style. As a student I had read Plato and had become sympathetic to the idealised ‘philosopher / king model’ of leadership. That model has permeated western society at many levels. There have even been US Presidents talking about the ’Vision Thing’ and variants thereof. My particular variant was the ‘teacher/leader’ because that seemed to fit the needs of the time. We were a knowledge-driven industry staffed with bright, well-educated and ambitious, young people. We were enthusiastic and optimistic. Our approach was deterministic. If the technology is there to do it, let us give it a shot. We were doing new things all the time. We were not primarily motivated by money probably because we were compensated far beyond the hygiene level. We were enjoying ourselves .We were completely open to new ideas. During the 1970s Japanese management techniques became subjects of interest particularly in manufacturing. We cherry-picked the Japanese ideas for our manufacturing plant and adapted them to our way of working. They proved to be very successful.
From that background a business philosophy emerged. It was very simple .We made things to solve problems. We were not dealers or traders. We didn’t manipulate things to turn a profit.
“The business exists to create satisfied customers through solutions and services. From that satisfaction we make a profit."
That has always been the ROCC philosophy. It seems to have worked. Another part of the philosophy concerned the people we employed. We were in the problem- solving business. Because we were a small company we often won the difficult, challenging projects that others preferred to shy away from. These projects demanded innovation. It soon became apparent that the main difference between us and our competitors was not our size, our technology, our assets, or our ownership but the talents of our people. The philosophy was stated as;
“The significant difference between ROCC and its competitors is the talents of its people.”
It then followed that people development had to be a critical management objective because that was the road to excellence in performance.
The ‘teacher/leader model’ worked well but as people grew older it became more difficult to keep up with a fast-changing world. The teacher began to move away from relying on knowledge to relying on experience. Perhaps the teacher was taking a step towards acquiring wisdom and thus striving for Plato’s concept of a philosopher.
Over the 23 year span of this Archive, I was involved not only in the management of our own company but also, by invitation, with the management of aspects of the activities of our clients. We were formally in the training business with our own Training School that over the years trained thousands of technical and operating staff. The management advice and training was much more ‘ad hoc’ and personal. It was about sharing experiences and helping to define problems. Sometimes it was one-on-one management development at a very senior level. I wrote many articles for management magazines, some of which have been found and put into the Archive. They are really period pieces but interesting because they addressed the issues of the day. Management like everything else had pinch-points and fashionable issues but they were still real and pertinent.
There were also some common issues of concern to both our company as manufacturer and our clients as users of our technology. One of these issues was ergonomics. We were very early into workplace ergonomics and health and safety with our data capture systems. We did not make terminals. We made workstations with purpose-built desks, special chairs and special visual display units. As the ergonomics research developed we identified potential problems with tenosynovitis and similar tendon disorders. We designed and built a new generation of visual display units that encompassed the then state of the art ergonomics and we set out to educate our clients on best practice to minimise problems. This was largely successful with the centralised data capture systems but less so with the distributed terminals installed in office locations, on office desks with office chairs and not used full-time for data capture. It was almost as though the physical disorders were considered part of the problem with centralised data capture systems, although there was little evidence to support that view. Years later, of course, those conditions were rampant with people doing word processing and PC working. The core problems were posture, height of desk, keyboard angles, lighting etc. The problems could be contained only with proper equipment and proper training. I wrote many articles on this subject, some of which have survived, and did some good alerting the IT community to the issues.
Another area that we were involved in with mixed results was the human relations impact of business process re-engineering. This re-engineering activity began in the late 1980s but was not prevalent until the 1990s. We could see that many data capture staff would migrate to clerical work using IT equipment as the data capture moved out of the punch room. These people were female. From our knowledge these people were highly skilled, disciplined and reliable with an excellent work ethic. These were valuable staff members. We put much effort into developing ‘Dataflow Management’ as an organised body of knowledge, techniques and procedures that would support, at the technician level, the work that was being done in business process re-engineering. These days one would probably call it an NVQ. Again large companies were receptive but otherwise it was a brave try. There was a glass ceiling. Few progressed even into junior management. One of the articles I wrote on dataflow management is in the Archive.
This article is part of the Michael Aldrich Archive donated to the Aldrich Library at the University of Brighton in the section titled “The Human Factor.”
© Michael Aldrich 2011