Resurgence of Old Values

What's keeping some of the world's most successful I-managers awake at night?

Whats keeping some of the worlds most successful I-managers awake at night?

Though labeled and described in various ways, the two concerns that most often popped up in presentations, discussions and question-and-answer periods at last weeks Open Systems Advisors Crossroads conference were customer relationships and information overload.

Granted, this was just the impression of one observer. OSAs president, Nina Lytton, took myriad instant polls throughout the sessions, measuring attitudes toward specific tools, strategies, etc. While some of the results may have fed my inferences, I suspect I was just relieved to discover that many of the pros shared my own concerns about current and past failures in adapting interactive tools to business.

In a world that has buried customer service behind impenetrable walls of telephone menus and Web forms designed to discourage — if not prevent — any possibility of human-to-human contact, it was refreshing to discover the resurgence of an old and cherished value: The customer is king. Fail to serve the customer and your fate is sealed.

If technology is a dirty word among todays consumers, it may be because technology is so often used to substitute the pretext of customer service for the reality. Its a combination of arrogance and bottom-line shortsightedness that has penetrated all levels of commerce and identified technology as the weapon of cheap. No matter that it doesnt work. No matter that consumer resentment keeps growing. No matter that so many customer relationship management tools have a trashy smell about them.

Yet, here were the best and the brightest of companies, ranging from the Burlington Coat Factory and Entrust Technologies to Motley Fool, CNA Insurance, Sharp Electronics and Compaq Computer suggesting, "Enough!"

And while customer service was not the actual subject of any single session, the continuous challenge of employing interactive technologies as a facilitator of service, rather than a substitute, was a common theme.

It was equally refreshing to hear hard-headed business people such as Joe Batista, Compaq Computers director of e-business initiatives, discuss "toxic information," his term for the data mudslide that is consuming more and more well-meaning enterprises.

The last six years have witnessed an emphasis on the gathering, mining and distribution of digital information. And while a whole lot of lip service has been paid to the growing gap between information and knowledge, few companies have had the foresight to invest in processes designed to tackle the information overload that inhibits profitable communications within a corporation and damages productivity.

While Batista asked that details of Compaqs efforts remain confidential — the processes are designed to improve competitiveness and are being introduced in stages — they include a complex set of innovative tools to winnow information wheat from the data chaff.

To underscore the growing importance of this issue, OSA chose for its final Crossroads session a keynote speech by David Shenk, author of the book Data Smog, to address the issue of how organizations "maintain perspective in an age of distraction." His premise was that when information clutter diverts the attention of a worker or partner or customer, rather than helping to focus that persons attention, productivity in the workplace or marketplace suffers.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. Developing the necessary tools for delivering viable customer service and eliminating meaningless information will tax the skills and resources of the worlds best I-managers. But the process has begun, and within intelligently managed companies, long-term investment in growth demands that it continue in earnest.