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Using Job Support Tools: To Improve Quality, Raise Productivity and Increase Performance
By Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas

Boards and management teams face multiple challenges. In particular, customers and clients are becoming more demanding. They increasingly desire bespoke products and services. They want to stand out and feel their acquisitions are distinctive or unique.

Since the Enron, Worldcom and other corporate scandals, the good standing of organisations has become even more important. When buying over the Internet customers purchase from organizations they believe they can trust.

Corporate reputation and brand image can both be compromised by poor quality. Similarly, consistency and driving errors out of what people do can enhance a name and help justify a price premium.

Changing Requirements
Traditional quality used statistical tools and prescribed processes to reduce variation and increase the quality of standard offerings and physical products. Today personal feelings, perceptions and relationships have become more significant. Ways need to be found of providing greater variety and tailored responses to individual customers while at the same time preserving quality.

An investigation undertaken by the Centre for Competitiveness at the University of Luton reveals that many companies initiate grandiose knowledge management initiatives but do little to help staff improve their performance. Putting information on an Intranet is not enough. Doing something better, new or different may require additional skills and tools, as well as access to relevant knowledge. Successful companies take practical steps to enable their people to compete and win.

When companies get it wrong there are fewer places to hide. With commentators and lobbyists able to reach larger audiences more quickly companies are keener than ever to avoid risks. Yet procedures for maintaining a quality kitemark can become a costly and bureaucratic burden.

Misuse of norms and standards can lead rapidly to low margin commodity supplier status. Quality needs to be built into the tools that people use daily to craft bespoke offerings. Organisations need to maintain quality while allowing faster, more flexible and tailored responses.

Many managers face a dilemma. People may require the discretion to treat particular cases on their own merits and innovate to create new options. Yet customers retain high expectations of quality and will punish a supplier for any slipping of ‘standards’. Delegation and empowerment must be accompanied by quality control.

Quality Problems
Getting it right first time every time is more difficult in changing and novel situations. Because of the time it takes to put separate quality checks in place to cope with new developments approaches adopted may lag behind changing requirements.

The variety sought by customers has to be reconciled with a reputation for quality. People worry about the risk of compromising quality when tailoring responses. Existing quality procedures may cover standard products, and a restricted set of reactions, but not departures from them when ‘bespoking solutions’.

In many situations the cost of applying a bureaucratic approach to quality to a growing number of variations from the norm would be prohibitive. Maintaining ‘traditional’ and ‘stand alone’ quality alongside greater workloads, diversity and pressure to perform becomes ever more problematic.

The proliferation of products, new channels to market, globalisation of business and continuing innovation create new risks that require additional responses. The sheer quantity of quality procedures and standards makes it increasingly difficult to keep people up to date with quality documentation, especially those working in the field, and also across a supply chain.

Too often quality stops at the boundary of an organisation and does not embrace business partners. It now needs to encompass the activities of people who may directly influence our reputation, service quality and the experience of customers, yet over whom a company has little direct control.

Anticipation and prevention is preferable to reaction to quality problems. Quality is often a self-contained activity rather than integrated into business processes. Quality considerations should be addressed as and when risks arise. Quality needs to become an automatic and integral element of a bespoke response.

The Solution
Some companies are creating a central and electronic quality repository and building quality into ways of working and job support tools so that control is still exercised in delegated situations. Their responses elements and are based upon a number of core principles such as forcing a focus on customer requirements and stopping errors happening in the first place.

Job support tools are designed to increase workgroup productivity and corporate performance by helping people to do a better job. Devices such as traffic lighting can be used to prevent people from progressing along a course of action if data entered is incomplete or suggests a possible risk.

Importantly, support tools can capture and disseminate best practice. The essence of the success of superstars can be expressed in better ways of doing things for others. Professional services firms including Hill & Knowlton, Clifford Chance, and KPMG collaborated to fund a tool PROMPT-RPS which helps users identify and manage commercial, financial, legal, technical and reputational risks.

Putting a support tool onto a laptop via a CD Rom disc can take quality out of the office and put it into the hands of people in the field and in partner organisations. Tools can also make quality accessible over a corporate Intranet or Extranet.

The automation of routine and repetitive activities can significantly improve productivity and allow more time for differentiation and tailoring. Decision trees can be included to help ensure all aspects are considered. A proposal generator could ensure consistent quality of customer facing documentation. Support tools can also be made tamperproof to reduce risks.

Learning support can be provided to improve understanding of important issues affecting quality. Self-assessment diagnostics can identify development and updating requirements.

A knowledge framework such as K-frame (see www.k-frame.com) can handle know-how in a wide range of formats from scanned print material and electronic databases, through animations and visual images to audio and video material. Search and fuzzy search facilities can be included. Using different media and interactive components can make quality documentation come alive.

Tradocs (www.tradocs.net) is a tool to help people send international trade documents across the Internet instantly, securely, easily and at low cost. Users know when a document arrives and when their trade partners receive and open the documents they send. Existing documents can be re-used to create new ones quickly and with fewer errors.

Eyretel whose products record and analyse telephone calls found its growth limited by the speed with which it could recruit, induct and train new sales representatives and bring existing staff up to speed with new offerings. According to Marketing Director, Nathan George: “We had to find a way to get knowledge about our sophisticated product line to a large number of sales people quickly”.

Cotoco, a supplier of bespoke support tools, developed a laptop based toolkit with animations to explain Eyretel’s voice recording solution, multimedia tours of its software, slide presentations, price and cost justification calculators and report generators. The result made such an impact on winning business and reducing sales costs that Eyretel won an eBusiness Innovation Award.

Tools developed by Cotoco (www.cotoco.com) have introduced many companies in sectors as varied as finance, manufacturing, and printing and packaging to more cost-effective ways of managing quality. Retailer B&Q vendors’ manual is designed to help the company’s partners to better understand their own role and how to comply with its requirements and quality standards.

Cisco sought to capture and spread best practice and achieve consistent and high quality activity across both its own sales force and indirect channels. Its support tool enables sales people to understand and communicate the significant business advantages that can result from use of its IP telephony products. Avaya provided its service engineers with a comprehensive support toolkit for maintaining the quality of its telecoms products in the field.

Financial services provider Friends Provident was keen to give its marketing team more discretion to develop local initiatives while ensuring that any documentation produced satisfied regulatory and other requirements. The company uses a sales development support toolkit called THE MARKiT to assist staff running local marketing campaigns. Stuart Wilson, the company’s Marketing Development Manager explains: “The business objective was to deliver an interactive toolkit that would help sales managers and their teams respond to requests for mailshots, local ads, posters and other lead generation material.”

Equipping workgroups with support tools offers various advantages over traditional approaches. Building in quality makes it possible to give more discretion to people whilst maintaining control. Organisations benefit from a reduced cost of errors and faster adaptation to change.

According to Tony Duggon, the Managing Director of Tradocs: “By getting the right tools for the job in place quality can be much improved. Tradocs significantly increases invoice-purchase order matching through semi-automating the production of invoices direct from the original purchase order without any re-keying. This improves accuracy as well as saving a lot of time”.

When multimedia facilities are used to show and demonstrate specialists may not need to be present. This reduces the cost of delivering new programmes and launching new products.

Multimedia capabilities usually enhance the portrayal of corporate credentials and capabilities, while animations can improve comprehension. ICB uses its ‘Navigator’ sales support tool to build product knowledge and communicate with customers. According to Marketing Director Janetta Evans "We now rely on the simple but effective tool as the knowledge base for the whole company. Navigator will become an intrinsic part of how ICB works.”

Use of a tool ensures a consistent approach across all personnel and locations. People can more quickly locate the information they need. By encouraging or forcing particular paths and preventing others, tools can have direct impact on behaviour. The provision of easy routes through material and incorporation of checks into regular activities improves the image of quality.

As situations and circumstances change tools can be rapidly and comprehensively updated in ways that identify new or altered material. A ‘what’s new’ section in B & Q’s vendors’ manual highlights amendments since the previous release of the tool.

ICB’s Janetta Evans is a satisfied user: “The message, the confidence, the ability to prove what we sell as a deliverable have all been greatly enhanced- this must lead to a great return on investment." For Stuart Wilson the impact of THE MARKiT toolkit “has been impressive. We are very pleased with the end result, having achieved and indeed exceeded our original expectations.”

Users of support tools report significant increases in productivity and the ease with which best practice can be spread. Quick paybacks of the cost of developing them can be achieved. Returns on investment of 20:1 or more can be obtained.

Ease of use is critical to success. Stuart Wilson describes Friends Provident’s requirement: “The toolkit had to be simple to use and capable of processing a large quantity of material in an interactive and user-friendly fashion, whilst also being flexible enough to cater for additional information to be added as required quickly and easily.” Don Fuller, Managing Director of Cotoco, agrees: “To encourage take up and change behaviour support tools should provide the easiest way to accomplish desired outcomes.”

Cotoco’s experience highlights the importance of integrating quality into support tools and the day-to-day work process, rather than having it as a separate and stand-alone add-on. By automating tasks and building quality gates in, errors can be designed out of business processes, and consequently significant savings made.

Don Fuller believes: “Learning through doing is particularly effective. Building knowledge into tools makes it very easy for people to get complex tasks right first time and every time.” Using them can also be a differentiator. A systematic and customer focused approach enhances a supplier’s reputation and helps to build relationships.

Avoid using tools that de-skill. According to Don Fuller, “Support tools should improve understanding each time they are used and help people to learn rapidly.” Cisco’s IP Telephony Sales Tool up-skills its users. As they work through prospect qualification and other aids windows open up to explain why certain courses of action are advocated.

Improved comprehension can be crucial. According to Don Fuller: “If someone is being asked to do something new that they don’t understand the quality of the resulting output is bound to be variable unless you support the individuals concerned to both learn and do the work that needs to be done.”

Eyretel’s tool helped both its own people and customers to better understand its technology and products. Users felt so confident in the presence of customers that the ratio of support to sales staff was cut by a third. Win rates increased, orders were brought forward and more professional presentations delivered. Eyretel’s Founder Roger Keenan described the tool as “by far the most professional piece of marketing Eyretel has ever produced.”

Ed Thompson, Research Director of Gartner suggests: “the key to success is to improve a process before automating it”. Don Fuller agrees: “Improvements based upon the insights of top performers are more likely to get outstanding results than automating current practices.” During development review existing approaches and incorporate useful short cuts and how high achievers operate.

The best results are usually achieved with relatively homogenous groups of people undertaking similar tasks. Avoid fixed and inflexible tools in areas undergoing rapid change, unless arrangements are made for continuing review and regular updating.
Don Fuller insists: “Ongoing maintenance can greatly increase a tool’s shelf life.”

Gartner’s research found that successful projects need clear goals, management commitment, a sound process and sales force buy in. Stuart Wilson confirms that: “Close liaison between the field, our IT, compliance and design departments has been vital.”

Friends Provident considered paper-based guides. However Stuart Wilson and his colleagues: “Recognised that these documents could very easily become shelf-fillers, gathering dust and rarely used. The company had a huge library of available materials. The challenge was finding how to present it in the most user-friendly way”.

Electronic manuals and tools are much easier to disseminate to business partners in multiple locations. Greater reuse of materials across other corporate documentation is likely to occur if they are all held and distributed electronically.

Support tools are particularly suited to the launch of new and sophisticated products. A single repository like K-frame can hold all the information and knowledge needed. Technical details can be quickly communicated to groups in various locations around the world. Animations and video footage can be used to show offerings in use, and secrecy can be maintained until the moment of release.

The Innovation Group has used support tools to launch a new Local Authority operating system and roll out its project management methodology. 3Com has employed a similar tool to introduce network products to both direct and indirect channels.

A corporate-wide approach makes it easier to include quality checks. People can be better equipped to deal with change. Building quality into support tools helps to ensure that it is not perceived as a burden.

Next Steps
Quality teams considering whether or not to provide people with job-support tools should seek a demonstration of actual applications to make them aware of what is possible. Workshops can then be held to examine the support requirements of particular workgroups, before scoping of the format and content of an electronic quality toolkit, and drawing up an integrated quality management support plan.

Once support requirements have been agreed rapid progress can usually be made. Even complex tools can be developed and tested within a few weeks of a go ahead. The introduction of a new tool needs to be carefully planned if people are to obtain the maximum of benefit from it. Putting a CD-Rom disc into the post is not enough. Make sure people understand the significance of what is provided.

“The trick”, according to Cotoco’s Don Fuller, “is to enable key workgroups to improve quality, efficiency and understanding simultaneously and effortlessly. The right job support tool will achieve this and provide a way of getting it right first time and every time.”

Further Information
The use of practical job support tools is examined in Colin Coulson-Thomas’s book The Knowledge Entrepreneur published by Kogan Page, 2003.

The Knowledge Entrepreneur: How Your Business Can Create, Manage and Profit from Intellectual Capital

The Knowledge Entrepreneur: How Your Business Can Create, Manage and Profit from Intellectual Capital
Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas

In many companies 'knowledge management' has focused almost exclusively upon the packaging of existing knowledge. Its exploitation has taken a back seat, while relatively little effort has been devoted to creating the additional know-how needed to innovate, discover and create additional customer and shareholder value. General information, knowledge and training have been made available on corporate intranets, but key work groups have not been equipped with the specific knowledge, skills and tools they need to do a better job. Knowledge management now urgently needs to move on. Knowledge managers need to either become knowledge entrepreneurs, or they must give way to this new breed of pioneers who are set to transform individual and corporate prospects.

The knowledge Entrepreneur is a guide to what needs to be done, and a workbook for making the transition. It is designed to help readers - whether entrepreneurial spirits or corporate managers - boost revenues and profit by significantly improving the performance of existing activities and creating new offerings that generate additional income. It shows how practical knowledge-based job-support tools can transform work group productivity, and reveals the enormous scope for addressing contemporary problems such as 'information overload' with imaginative responses. Lists of possible commercial ventures are provided.

The Knowledge Entrepreneur contains detailed checklists that various groups from entrepreneurs and investors to individual members of the board can use for identifying and analysing opportunities for knowledge entrepreneurship. Exercises are also included for assessing entrepreneurial potential and scoping possible products and services. The CD accompanying the book gives examples of particular knowledge-based job support tools that have dramatically improved desired results in crucial areas such as winning more business.
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Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas works with quality teams to improve workgroup productivity and corporate performance. Following marketing, general management and process vision holder roles he became the world’s first Professor of Corporate Transformation. He is now the UK’s first Professor of Competitiveness at the University of Luton and can be contacted on 01733 361 149 or by email: colinct@tiscali.co.uk








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