Information overload is at risk of casting many technological advances in a poor light. For example, many businesses large and small find themselves creaking under the weight of emails and data that detract from the job in hand.
To misquote Homer Simpson, technology is the cause of — and solution to — most of life’s problems. However, Richard Cotter (pictured) of Growth Investments is happy to embrace technology: the same software program that brings his email, Microsoft Outlook, is also helping him to organise his time and to work more productively. His company is a pension and investment advisory firm and, as a small business with private clients, time during the day is best spent in front of customers.
“One of our biggest problems was double-booking appointments,” he relates. “Now all of us have access to each other’s calendars.”
Richard and the company founder, his father Jim, spend much of their time on the road; one of the pluses of Outlook is that they have avoided having to take time out to learn how to use a new software package: it’s just a matter of using what they have differently. “The biggest saving of all is that we don’t have to be taught how to use it,” he states.
Richard and Jim are also able to access Outlook when they are away from the office, by connecting securely back in to the server. The data synchronises automatically between their computers and their smart phone or handheld device, meaning that they are constantly in touch with developments. Emails can be read on the move and replied to later, or new appointments can be put into the calendar section of Outlook and everyone in the company is able to see the change immediately.
Improving personal productivity, while obviously of benefit to the stressed staffer or the busy small company, is part of a wider economic agenda for Ireland.
A report by the economist Paul Tansey last year warned of a threat to living standards here unless productivity growth rose.
Conor O’Connell, managing director of the training consultancy Time Management International (TMI) Ireland, contends that employees — and by extension, businesses — need to concentrate on achieving results as opposed to simply spending time ‘being busy’.
He puts it simply: “How many things do you do in the working day that add value to the organisation? The tools are no longer tools, they’re almost distractions. There’s no shortage of tools, there’s a shortage of knowing how to use them so that they can help you.”
The figures support his case: a survey by Symantec found that the volume of email received by businesses rose by 47pc in 2005.
This rise is having an effect on the time spent reading and answering emails, expanding the duration of the working day.
Data from the market research firm IDC found that 15pc of white-collar workers recreate existing information.
Taking the example of a typical small to medium business, O’Connell points out that they need to spend time on business development and observes that software already being used by most businesses can help them to achieve this. “Outlook can do all and more of what the old organisers do,” he says. “A good small business manager needs to pay extra attention to the success areas of the business. What Outlook is really powerful at doing is identifying the proper tasks so that the calendar reflects that. A lot of people think Outlook is email and that’s it.”
What’s required, says O’Connell, is a change in mindset as to how the software is used. In a nutshell, this means not just using it for answering emails but instead putting the principles and disciplines of time management to work.
According to O’Connell, Outlook effectively becomes an electronic to-do list. For example, by taking an email and dragging it into the task bar, it can be saved and set to pop up at a time or date set by the user, to remind them to take action. “Make the tool the ‘dashboard’ of the day,” O’Connell suggests. “Effective people don’t just have a to-do list, they have a plan for the day.”
He says that Outlook is powerful for tracking the things that are important but not urgent, whereas many people fall into the trap of spending time on less critical tasks such as responding to queries and requests.
Some companies even go to the lengths of switching off their email for an hour or two in the morning and again in the afternoon but O’Connell believes that it’s possible to manage the information sensibly without such drastic tactics. He also points out that some days a problem may arise that has to get priority over other tasks but that shouldn’t be a reason not to be organised for the rest of the time. “If there’s a crisis issue, deal with it but by and large most people should be able to plan their day, saying: here are the things that I want to get done. It’s the difference between being busy and being effective.”
He raises a larger question as to whether email is the most appropriate tool for sending urgent messages: “It’s got that way but is it right?” he asks. “It forces people to treat things that aren’t very important as urgent. Many people don’t think about their jobs in terms of creating results,” he says. “You are measured by the amount of value you add, not the amount of emails you reply to.”
“Productivity is a dead simple concept: it’s inputs over outputs. It’s all about certain things to do from a bottom-line or cost-saving perspective,” adds Maurice Martin, business marketing officer with Microsoft Ireland.
Although the traditional approach to a greater workload is to throw bodies at the problem, “why not make the people you have more productive?” asks Martin. “If you’re talking about how to use technology in your business, think about how to use the technology as is, with maybe an incremental investment.”
Case study: Growing productively
Growth Investments is a family-owned pension and investment advisors firm that was set up in 1988. The company has just four employees: Richard Cotter, his father Jim and two administration staff.
According to Cotter, the company is able to stay lean and competitive without having invested large amounts of money in new technology simply by using what was already in place. “Outlook is one of the most powerful customer relationship management tools out there and it’s something you already have,” he says.
Cotter calls the combination of Microsoft Small Business Server and Outlook for email by the much abused term ‘solution’ but in this case he contends that it has actually alleviated a problem. “Up until three years ago I was spending a minimum of two to three hours a week on IT myself. If you eliminate those two to three hours that I wasn’t with clients, that’s a huge saving,” he says.
The technology has also helped Cotter to change how he works, by leaving his city centre office early to beat the traffic and then continuing to work from home for a couple of hours in the evening. “I was able to put in a day’s work in about two hours — answering emails that I wasn’t able to look at. I was able to access the company database, write three client letters, confirm four or five appointments and it’s no longer an intrusion into my personal life.”
By Gordon Smith