Empowering Employees with Information

Susan Andre Survival Strategy Column

Information, the truism goes, is power, so why are employers not doing more to empower their employees?

Much has been written and read about the need to educate and train employees. How often have you heard about the value proposition in educating staff, as it equips people to better serve customers, and has a direct bearing on the business bottom line?

"Our digital nervous systems, according to the cynics, have created more confusion than most people are prepared to admit."

Some of the hurdles to this education process and the selection of the most suitable approach to training are fairly obvious. Perhaps the most popular inhibitor is the choice between developing bespoke programmes and using off-the-shelf material.

To complicate matters a little more, there is still the misconception that technology and computers are a threat to employment – contract, permanent or time-specific.

In fact, information is an enabler. The trick is to teach people to analyse the information and apply it effectively in their work environment. Training programmes should focus on this often-overlooked skill.

A new paradox

Phrases such as "we must learn to forget what have learnt", or "un-learning is a skill of the future", are frequently quoted. Essentially this means that employers need to train and educate employees in the art of flexibility. This is the key to business and training success.

Management need to have programmes in place that will teach employees to apply the knowledge they acquire in a skilful manner, ensuring that the customer is always best served.

Wolfgang Grulke, one of the founders of FutureWorld, a think tank of business people, encapsulated the future of knowledge in his book, Ten Lessons from the Future, when he said: "…information and ideas fuel the economy. Pure knowledge is worthless and skills are everything."

It is essential that management and employees embrace technology, whether it be for training purposes or for mutually beneficial transactions with customers.

Customer interaction

Many businesses use data about customers' prior buying habits to target marketing activities and create offers for new products or services. But this historical data only provides a very limited view of the customer.

What should be done is to integrate the data collected during each customer interaction with value-added external information. This could include information such as demographic and geographic content. This will provide a clearer picture of who a company's customers are and what they really need, want and are prepared to pay for.

This integration also enables companies to improve customer relationships and identify new opportunities for selling as well as cross- and up-selling.

In addition to gaining a better understanding of customers, companies also require a clearer picture of their own operations, in order to succeed in e-business.

Without being trained for the future, how will management and staff be able to understand exactly what is happening within their organisation, and use that knowledge to rapidly reshape and transform the way they run their businesses and meet present and future stakeholder expectations?

To improve the speed and quality of critical business decisions, companies must give front-line managers the ability to rapidly develop, track, and respond to key business metrics.

Employee empowerment

In order to make better operational decisions it is essential that the information supply chain deliver a thorough understanding of business processes.

Unfortunately, the critical business information that companies need to facilitate strategic decision-making is often locked up in multiple, disparate applications, databases, and legacy systems.

An education programme geared to bring all participants up to speed with the latest methods and techniques on how to consolidate, quality-assure and restructure data is highly beneficial.

It will provide the information specialists with the tools needed to unlock the most value for their organisations. In addition, the training programme must be extended to include teaching users of this "unlocked" information pool how to derive the most benefit from it.

Measurable improvement

Performance measures related to the cost of poor quality in manufacturing are well known. However, services process measurements tend to be vague and more abstract.

Information-related training should result in measurable improvement in the internal business processes, customer-facing activities, financial performance, employee retention and other indicators of success within organisations. This will increase the quality of any interaction with an organisation, through the exploitation of their information assets.

All of these processes and actions are measurable and it will be possible for management to determine the effectiveness or otherwise of their training programmes.

Unfortunately information training programmes geared towards quality improvement are not results-oriented. There is very few training and non-training executives who measure performance, related to the cost of poor quality. Often, success is judged not by improvement in internal process measurements, but rather by the teaching ability of instructors. What is learned and applied successfully is not measured in any meaningful way.

Training programmes in areas such as warehousing, maintenance, human relations and information technology are not results-focused. Why? Because relevant performance measurements are usually not understood, discussed or made explicit.

Define the training problem

The performance measurement approach to training will view internal training programmes as problem-solving activities. This view of what training should accomplish has a profound effect on how training programmes are selected and how effectively they are implemented.

In terms of knowledge management, issues which training can help business to determine and act upon, include: How much do we know about our information? Do we know how to apply knowledge gleaned from information made available to us? Do we have sufficient information available to make more informed decisions?

Our digital nervous systems, according to the cynics, have created more confusion than most people are prepared to admit. The ability to collect information at a rapid pace is driving huge volumes of data to be stored. Unless the human-gap is addressed through effective, measurable training methods, we will struggle to succeed and will not take full advantage of the value of our information assets.

Break down the barriers

Take data warehouse projects as a prime example: While training in any business sector is an expensive exercise, and the technology that staff are trained on is also capital-intensive, research shows that, on average, a data warehouse costs R4 million to R5 million for the first four years.

Companies cannot afford to neglect the people issues that contribute to the successful implementation and continued use of the data warehouse.

Regular reassessment of data warehouse usage and its effect on the business helps identify barriers to effective access and feeds back into a training, enhancement and maturing process. Targeted training also helps break down barriers, supporting strategic business goals and positively affecting the bottom line.

Training is a primary ingredient, not only for data warehouse literacy, but also to ensure buy-in. Education starts with an understanding of what the role of the data warehouse has in supporting the business. Clarifying how this can affect performance (and remuneration) provides additional motivation. Effective training must deal with a number of aspects unique to the data warehouse environment.

Training should be targeted, so the appropriate technology is matched to staff functions. An essential ingredient in the training and education process is on-the-job knowledge transfer. This is vital. The design constraints alone mean that the project manager must ensure that once the project is finished, there are people left behind who know how to interpret a business requirement into a design, as well as knowing the intricacies of performance tuning the data warehouse.

In addition, internal training and marketing has to be done to ensure that there is buy-in to the data warehouse and that it is used by decision-makers.

The lack of IT management skills in SA has resulted in the development of the vanilla-flavoured project manager. Successful data warehouse implementation relies on more than the ability to manage staff, technology and client expectations. Data warehousing needs project managers who are specialists and generalists.

They have to be specialists in understanding the unique aspects of design and implementation, and generalists in a wide range of skills, both business and technical that are applied to a data warehouse. A challenge indeed, and one that is not specific to data warehousing alone.

An organisation's training policy and tactical implementation plans should be driven by the need for measurable and actionable results. In terms of data warehousing it is essential that the optimum utilisation of information, through training, feeds back to the organisation's goals and objectives.