Blinded by the IT

To the man who only has a hammer in the tool kit, every problem looks like a nail, Abraham Maslow observed many years ago, and it applies to IT tools every bit as much as it does to hammers and saws. The business tools we select have a way of focusing our attention and efforts on some factors to the exclusion of others. It just happens; it's the nature of tools, part of how and why they work. Since

To the man who only has a hammer in the tool kit, every problem looks like a nail,” Abraham Maslow observed many years ago, and it applies to IT tools every bit as much as it does to hammers and saws. The business tools we select have a way of focusing our attention and efforts on some factors to the exclusion of others. It just happens; it's the nature of tools, part of how and why they work.

Since 1993, Boston-based Bain & Co. has been conducting surveys to identify the management tools businesses are using around the globe and how satisfied they are with those tools. A report on results of the most-recent survey was released last month (“Management Tools & Trends,” Darrell Rigby and Barbara Bilodeau (www.bain.com/management_tools). Findings reflect responses from 960 global executives surveyed during 2004. To qualify for inclusion in the survey, a tool had to be relevant to senior management, topical and measurable.

Looking at this year's top 10 management tool choices, it is interesting to consider which factors are getting most executive attention today and which are generally not on the management radar screen. For starters, executives in North America did not always concur with their European, Asian or South American counterparts. Strategic planning garnered the number-one spot everywhere, for example, except in Asia, where CRM (Customer Relationship Management) was number one, followed by Total Quality Management, which did not even make the top ten anywhere else in the world.

North American managers ranked Benchmarking second, followed by Mission and Vision Statements, Strategic Alliances, Growth Strategies, Outsourcing, Customer Segmentation and Core Competencies. CRM was ninth on the list, followed by Scenario and Contingency Planning and Business Process Reengineering.

The survey, which is not limited to technology issues, includes more than a basic. ranking of tools. For instance, one in two executives surveyed reported that their companies usually cut costs when they need to increase profits, but 86% agreed that innovation is more important than cost-reduction for long-term success. Go figure. On the other hand, two-thirds of the respondents indicated that lack of customer insight is hurting their performance, which explains at least in part the overall rise in customer-focused tools like CRM, which was ranked second globally.

On the basis of their research, Bain & Co. offers four suggestions for the usage of management tools:

  1. Get the facts. Every tool carries a set of strengths and weaknesses. Success requires understanding the full effects — and side effects — of each tool and then creatively combining the right ones in the right ways at the right times.

  2. Champion enduring strategies, not fleeting fads. Line managers and tool gurus don't always have perfectly aligned agendas. Tool gurus may provoke stimulating discussions, but managers must manage.

  3. Choose the best tools for the job. Managers need a rational system for selecting, implementing and integrating the tools appropriate for their companies.

  4. Adapt tools to your business system, not vice versa).”



The wise and wry Dr. Maslow would probably applaud this fine list of suggestions. “Perhaps every now and then,” he might add, “in the midst of hammering away like mad with the business tool du jour it is helpful to take a look around at what tools and strategies others are using. At the very least, dump out your own toolkit from time to time to discover what else might be available down at the bottom, unseen and unused under that favorite hammer.”

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