Heating Up Business with Employee Feedback

Encouraging feedback and evaluation within a company can lead to improved operations, but it takes courage to seek it, Eric Lundquist writes.

As I burned leaves during my annual spring cleanup early last week, I had a realization: The next big thing in the use of the Internet for business is right in front of us—if business execs are willing to take a little heat.

First, let me back up a bit. When Amazon and other e-tailers (some still with us, some departed) came on the scene, their business practices led to a revolution at old-line companies. The revolution wasnt caused by the bold, new business plans; it occurred because some vice president ordered a book online and was notified, in a series of e-mail messages, of pricing options for shipment methods and the status of the shipment. That led to the question, "Why cant I have that same inventory and shipping information available in my own company?" That question, in turn, provided a reason for corporate portals and Web-based inventory, ERP and management projects.

So, whats next? The most useful consumer-site features that are due to change the business world are user feedback and forum platforms. Im not talking about the three-radio-button Web survey where you rate your CEOs annual employee letter as great, supergreat or super-duper-great. Im talking about employee and department-to-department feedback on and evaluation of the companys products and services. The challenge is to create a mechanism that allows feedback (sometimes anonymously) that translates into improvements in a companys internal operations.

To make sure my thinking wasnt befuddled from being too close to burning leaves, I consulted executives from companies in the relationship management business as well as some members of eWEEKs Corporate Partner Advisory Board.

"The same features that draw millions of users to consumer services are indeed attractive to business users; these features are starting to appear in key areas, but they have yet to be fully leveraged in a business context," said Eric Hoffert, CEO of ShareMethods, in an e-mail exchange. ShareMethods develops a marketing relationship system somewhat like sales-developed customer relationship systems. Using ShareMethods service, users can rate and review sales and marketing documents as to their business value in a particular application.

"I would highly recommend developers integrate these classes (reviews and ratings), and many others, of user-friendly, community-driven features—which are ubiquitous in consumer services but lacking in the business space," said Hoffert. "We might just find a whole new round of user adoption and satisfaction with business apps and happier customers."

John Taschek, who was eWEEKs Labs director before becoming director of product marketing for Salesforce.com, said in an e-mail exchange: "What I think well see are automatic systems that monitor features (the top reports, top dashboards, top workflow rules, etc.) and then automatically promote them to others. There may be rating services involved."

The IT executives I talked to from our Corporate Partner Advisory Board agreed that bringing consumer evaluation features to corporate applications is valuable but that there are hurdles to overcome.

"Feedback is a great thing," said Gary Gunnerson, IT architect for Gannett. "Its terrific to know what youve done right and eye-opening to know what youve done wrong. In most cases, though, few people share kudos while most share displeasure. So it takes a lot of guts to put mechanisms in place that encourage sharing opinions of faulty products or procedures. It takes even more courage to create systems that track and respond to negative feedback [and yield] desired improvements. Do we in IT have that courage?"

"I dont think people will rate just because its requested. There has to be some attribute in the electronic transaction that enhances the personal value to the user, and I dont mean anything like a simple pricing discount or a nifty-looking Web page," said Nelson Ramos, regional CIO for Sutter Health.

So, if your companys IT systems can withstand some heat from employees, there could be a big payoff for everyone involved.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be contacted at eric_lundquist@ziffdavis.com.

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