Here at Waterstons we talk a lot about Performance through Technology. It’s not just our strapline; three words we like to put on signs and marketing material; it’s a fundamental concept which is behind everything we do for our clients and indeed ourselves.
Performance through Technology is the way we describe our basic beliefs about the place of technology in business. It’s not about having the newest, fastest, most expensive bit of hardware or software because it exists, but rather about having it because it will meet or exceed expectations for satisfying a business need or solving a business problem.
It’s all too common in businesses to find that IT investment is driven by a desire by the IT department to purchase and implement something new and which is of interest to them. Devolving control of the IT budget to the IT department can unfortunately often result in inappropriate investments with unclear business cases and little thought and attention paid to the potential financial return.
For these reasons, it is critically important that every technology project, every business systems investment, and every infrastructure or platform change is understood, documented and evaluated with a business case before any investment is made. The benefits of any given project should be clearly defined, with their critical success factors understood; and during and after the process these benefits should be continuously evaluated in order to ensure they are being delivered.
Waterstons’ Performance through Technology agenda is supported by a number of tools, one of which assesses the viability of a project against five key ways in which a benefit can be realised.
Figure 1: Waterstons' five ways
Where a project can be expected to deliver a demonstrable benefit in one (or preferably many more) of these five ways, a robust business case, financial ROI and justification can be readily prepared. By putting the business need or problem first, the ‘Five Ways’ re-align expectations of technology around its ability to support better business, rather than as an overhead cost or even, as in some businesses, a barrier to progress and evolution.
Why stop there?
So you’re considering a project and, perhaps for the first time, evaluating it for its ability to provide a measurable return. A step in the right direction for certain; but why stop there? Businesses all over the world have adopted the principles of continuous improvement embodied by the Lean methodologies developed in manufacturing.
Constantly monitoring, evolving and re-evolving your processes in order to reduce waste, save time or increase quality and productivity is just as important in your business whether you make boxes or sell people’s time by the hour. Even outside the sometimes messy (who hasn’t been paying attention to the ‘shine’ in 5S?), always exciting world of the factory floor the concept of Lean process and improvement can deliver sizeable benefits to any business.
So it is that I propose that Performance through Technology can be applied to any business not only from the point of view of ‘now and next’ projects, but from a wider, more fundamental standpoint as a foundational principle of business improvement. By adopting Performance through Technology in this way, and by ensuring it is understood and communicated across all levels of your business (in the same way as new Toyota employees are given a lengthy induction into the Toyota Production System), you can evolve a new way of thinking. This can allow you not only to adapt, develop and deliver new processes and ways of working, supported by appropriate and validated technology, but also to embed within your workforce the desire and motivation to continuously re-evaluate the way they work and actively look for ways to make it better.
Right, so where do I start?
It’s all very well deciding that you want to make Performance through Technology a cornerstone of your business and technology paradigm; but a fundamental shift such as that engendered within an agenda like this cannot happen overnight. Instead, it’s worth considering Performance through Technology as a project in its own right. Sure, it’s a big undertaking and will take some time and commitment, but it will be transformational; however you choose to look at it, there is a process to follow, and steps to be taken which will help lead you to success; a process which I suggest looks something like this:
The diagram shows the logical progression towards a situation where Performance through Technology is culturally embedded within your organisation. Now, I’m not for one minute suggesting that for a given organisation this process might not change or be adapted; after all, that’s one of the core principles of business – no two businesses are the same. What this visualisation does offer, however, is a roadmap from which to start; and start is what we’ll do now.
The “Understanding” Phase
You’re not going to get anywhere without trust, buy in and understanding at the highest levels of the business, so the first stage always has to be selling the Performance through Technology agenda internally at board and executive levels; the mechanism here will be to focus on the positive impacts of the process and the benefits which are expected. Explain that IT exists to serve the business, not as an overhead, and demonstrate that IT projects can add real value and deliver bottom-line returns. The whole point of Performance through Technology is to put the business first; using business language to explain its impact will be the key to gaining the faith of the senior echelons of the organisation in what these changes set out to achieve.
As much as Performance through Technology can do, it relies on alignment between business strategy and technology projects to ensure that the platforms, infrastructure and systems put in place will deliver the greatest benefits. Hence, a well-established business strategy must be in place so that its technology enablers can be identified.
This type of exercise is a key part of Waterstons’ business technology alignment process 1; this stage might involve producing a Kaplan and Norton  strategy map and balanced scorecard, identifying your organisation’s discipline driver using Treacy and Wiersema’s model , and determining the KPIs and measures through which your business’ success should be monitored. Once you understand what the business is trying to achieve, you can set about determining how to achieve it and which technologies to exploit to help do so.
The “Motivate” Phase
So the directors are convinced, the strategy is clear, and the KPIs are identified; where next? Well, taking a leaf out of Toyota’s book, you need to make sure everyone else in the business is bought in to the change you’re trying to make. Communication sessions to all the staff should be undertaken, in order to explain the concept of Performance through Technology and introduce the continuous improvement agenda. For a manufacturer, this might be an extension of the existing Lean agenda, but for other organisations the whole idea of incrementally improving process, productivity and quality could be new to many.
A great strategy for bringing people on board is to get their input into the process, allowing them to feel ownership of a part of it; so devolve responsibility for communications to department heads or team leaders, and encourage people to have a voice and opinion. A brilliant way to give people the opportunity to give their ideas and opinions is to hold group sessions; I’d suggest a good place to start is to hold a ‘Your 5-Ways’ workshop. Waterstons’ ‘Five Ways’ as shown above can be tailored to the audience; for example in education we might describe “customer service” as “student experience”; the same can work for your business. Depending on size, you might have an organisation-wide ‘Five Ways’, or maybe even at a business unit level. Getting everyone bought in to and understanding the ways they should be thinking about project returns and benefits will greatly empower them to pursue the improvement agenda later.
The embedding phase is where ‘improvement’ really becomes ‘continuous improvement’; embedding Performance through Technology within the business is a process which will be ongoing, so in reality this phase may not have any clear end; and ideally, it should not.
See, Develop and Improve
Using the tools they’ve been given, and the understanding and empowerment to use them, your employees at all levels should henceforth be encouraged to apply themselves to challenging the status quo. They should be actively looking for opportunities to improve the business through better use of technology, or through re-deployment or implementation of technology as an enabler to improving process.
By watching the way things are done, challenging them and suggesting ways to make things work better, the business can grow and evolve, constantly changing and adapting to new pressures. No idea should be ridiculed, and every possibility should be explored in order to ensure the best alignment of technology, process and strategy; not forgetting that each should be assessed using the business’ agreed ‘Five Ways’ and the benefits identified and validated. For those improvement ideas where a return can be demonstrated, support should be given from the top down; for this agenda to work, it’s absolutely fundamental that everyone can see the business, and its entire senior staff, is 100% behind it.
Reinforce, Review, and Re-align
This stage represents one part of the iterative process of improvement which the Performance through Technology culture should engender within your organisation. It’s vital to ensure that the good work done so far doesn’t cease, and that the underlying effort becomes a foundation upon which to be built.
With improvements in productivity and profitability should come growth, and it is important that new staff members are inducted into the Performance through Technology way of doing things from the outset. Constant communication to reinforce the agenda is critical, as is an ongoing and regular review of strategic priorities, growth drivers and evolution within the business.
By constantly questioning whether what you’re doing can be done better, and by involving everyone in the business in the development, execution and improvement of your strategy, potential improvements in productivity, communication and quality can be realised. With them will come further trust and buy-in to the continuous improvement agenda. This ‘snowball’ effect can not only bring success to your own business, but can demonstrate the effectiveness of the programme to your customers, suppliers and partners.
With time your business, and the tangible and intangible improvements you have seen, will become an example to others; all it takes is a few with the drive, ambition and determination to make Performance through Technology happen. Why not lead the way?
- Burrows, D. (2013, February). When an IT Strategy is NOT an IT Strategy: A blueprint for delivering Technology Alignment projects.
- Kaplan, R. S., & Norton, D. P. (2004). Strategy Maps: Converting Intangible Assets into Tangible Outcomes.
- Treacy, M., & Wiersema, F. (1997). The Discipline of Market Leaders: Choose Your Customers, Narrow Your Focus, Dominate Your Market.