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Companies that make strategic decisions around their workforce will always have an edge. Management experts commonly advise that people are an organization’s most valuable assets, and the notion is almost a management cliché, yet some organizations don't seem to really follow through. They tell employees to do their jobs a certain way, with a limited set of tools and technologies, in an effort to save money short-term. Lean operations are absolutely important these days, but lean operations are still enabled by people.
People do not fit neatly into a tightly-woven matrix of corporate rules and policies. They can be unpredictable, independent, and sometimes inventive by nature. These are strengths that companies should embrace -- not suppress.
One of my favorite fast food restaurant chains is In and Out Burgers, the Irvine, California company known for its fresh, made-to-order hamburgers. There are many examples of how putting people first can drive business success, but the company is one of my favorites. Recently, the company expanded to Texas, its fifth state, where people lined up for miles to get a taste. What are the secret ingredients other than 100% ground beef, real ice cream shakes and hand-cut french fries? People. When food industry consultants suggested that the company could save a lot of money by slashing salaries, the company’s then-president Rich Snyder balked. Instead, he kept hourly wages high and introduced a number of benefits for employees. The private company is flourishing today, with more than 250 restaurants.
Business leaders have a choice. They can either foster a human-centric culture, in which the motivations, preferences and desires of the workforce are valued and embraced. Happier people tend to make more productive employees. The other option is to focus primarily on tightly-managed and repeatable processes and financial controls. The outcome might be a higher quality product, lower prices and satisfied customers -- but for how long? Should companies really care about the individual worker, and make strategic decisions with those people in mind?
At Microsoft, we think a lot about what our users like and what annoys them when we develop our products. Every month, the Office team collects terabytes of information through the Office Customer Experience Improvement program. This data, collected anonymously and with permission by our users, teaches us how people actually use the features we designed, and what causes problems. Trends from this data analysis have significant influence on product development. Making great products that resonate with the amazing diversity of user base (750 million strong) is what drives our engineering efforts.
But getting the best possible products into the hands of our employees is just the first step. IT leaders need to understand how employees really work, across different roles, before introducing a new technology. The results can sometimes be catastrophic without first making that human connection. People refuse to use the new system at all or don't use it as intended. Later, when the ROI numbers look weak, the technology implementers are to blame and the system becomes an afterthought. This InformationWeek article, for instance, discusses how collaboration software projects can fail, when the IT folks don't get proper buy-in from the business people.
Despite all the awesome technology that we have at our disposal here at Microsoft, managers still must work hard every day at supporting people in their different work styles. My executive assistant only comes into the office three days per week. The other two days she works from home, so she can maximize her time with her kids. She regularly uses technologies like Microsoft Lync for virtual meetings, and Outlook and Exchange for e-mail and scheduling when she's not in the office. She never misses a beat, not just because of the technologies available at her disposal, but because of her connection in working with me and my team.
When it comes to technology, making human connections (or understanding them) is imperative to maximize your investment. Give your people the tools they can embrace, with a bit of freedom to experiment, and see what can happen.
--Takeshi Numoto, Corporate Vice President, Office