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How To: Use Technology to Manage People

CEO tells how to keep in close contact with your employees by using technology.
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Randy Fields tells you how to keep in close touch with your employees

If someone comes into my office without their laptop computer," says Randy Fields, "I tell them, 'I don't think I can talk to you now. Get your laptop.' "

Few executives are as committed to technology as Fields, who with his wife, president and chief executive officer Debbi, has built Mrs. Fields Inc. into the world's largest retailer of cookies and specialty bakery products. To Randy, the company's chairman, computers are as vital to operations as the chocolate chips.

They are vital, though, in a surprising way. Computers have become, for him, much more than a tool for typing reports and working spreadsheets. Boring stuff, says Fields; a terrible waste. He has something much bigger in mind. Look at Mrs. Fields's organizational chart -- 20 times wider than it is high. Technology, Fields says, eliminates layers of management and keeps him in much closer touch with employees.

Fields sees the computer as the most powerful tool around for managing people. For keeping the corporate staff lean. For organizing ideas. For enabling employees to communicate directly with the CEO in her Park City, Utah, headquarters. For automating most routine paperwork and decision making. Since technology is capable of doing so much, says Randy, CEOs should "understand it just like they understand operations."

Wise use of technology, he says, is one of the reasons for Mrs. Fields's growth into an international retailer with sales last year of $180 million. In 1990 Fields plans to spin off Fields Software Group Inc., a new enterprise that will develop and sell software systems to retail and service companies.

"I want to transform the workplace, what people do, and how they do it," says Fields, who identified for us the touchstones of a corporate environment in which technology is used to manage people.

* * *

How has technology changed Mrs. Fields? Not at all -- which was what Randy wanted from the beginning. It helped that he had two goals when he installed his technology: The processing and even much of the analysis of information should be done by machine. The corporate staff should solve problems, not process information. Branch offices should have electronic-mail systems that enable people to communicate directly to top management. If you have widespread retail operations, like Mrs. Fields, let computers tell the manager how many cookies to bake. Free your people to do what they do best -- run a business.

The Big Payoff One big payoff of using technology is productivity gains. "Technology lets us run the company with a flat organization chart," says Fields, "despite our having grown from $25 million to nearly $200 million. If I'd increased corporate personnel proportionate to retail,I'd have 300 people here, not 115."

MANAGING TECHNOLOGY/MANAGING PEOPLE #1

How to Manage Your Time and Tasks

Gone are the days when Randy Fields and his team jotted down ideas on bits of paper or entered them into date books. Now, all top managers have a laptop computer that runs a program to help them manage their time and tasks. Everyone uses Agenda, a Lotus Development Corp. program that lists for around $395 (see Executive Software: "Someday I'll Get Organized," December 1988, [Article link]). A user types ideas into the program, which automatically files them under such categories as a project name or a follow-up date. Later, the user can cross-index various other data he or she has entered.

Fields also recommends another Lotus program, Metro, which provides functions such as a text editor, a calculator, and a phone book. Price: about $85.

* * *

MANAGING TECHNOLOGY/MANAGING PEOPLE #2

How to Manage People in Remote Locations

Any company with offices or stores scattered in far-flung locations has critical problems to deal with: how do you foster communication with the home office? And how do you assure the highest standards of performance when top management isn't there to supervise?

Randy Fields believes that technology provides many of the answers. He uses software that the company itself developed to help him manage his stores (see "Mrs. Fields' Secret Ingredient," October 1987). Here's how he does it:

Goal: Free up store managers from the routine process work so they can get out of the back room and do what's most important: meet customers face-to-face.

Here's how: A computer in each cookie store tells the manager how much business is expected that day, based on historical data. It instructs the manager in, for example, the amount of batter to mix and at what time. Later, the computer updates the projections based on that day's experience.

Goal: Identify operating problems quickly and provide help to store managers immediately.

Here's how: At the end of each day, sales data from each Mrs. Fields store streams into Park City headquarters. The following day, managers can quickly get on top of problems.

Goal: Flatten the organizational chart by enabling employees in the stores to communicate directly with chief executive Debbi Fields.

Here's how: Employees send ideas to Debbi via electronic mail; they receive a reply within 48 hours.

The Right System How do you choose the right system? Every company's technology needs are different, says Fields. Call in a consultant -- the largest accounting firms, he says, are generally quite skilled at helping small companies choose a computer system to meet their needs.

SET THE EXAMPLE

Learn to Use Computers Yourself

The person at the top has no choice. "You must be a computer user," says Fields. "The example must come from the CEO."

When he introduced Agenda, the new management software, to the company, Randy recalls that Debbi didn't want to use it. "She resisted it for a long time," he says. "I used to bring my laptop to the dinner table. Debbi finally said, 'If I'm going to avoid being a computer widow, I'd better find out how to use it.' So after dinner we fired it up. I spent 15 minutes instructing her, and she sat up until 3:00 in the morning and entered her entire day planner into it."

* * *

INFORMATION EXCHANGE

Get Exactly the Data You Need

Randy Fields recommends keeping two things in mind when buying or developing new software:

* Remember who's boss. "What most CEOs are getting now is information that the MIS [management information systems] department is telling them they can have," says Fields. "You've got to turn around and say, 'This is what I want.' If the MIS director says he can't get that to you or it can't be done, get rid of him."

* Get the right data at the right time. "If you have a business like retailing," says Fields, "the change is daily, and information has to be managed daily. What you want is information that's appropriate to the kinds of decisions you make."

TRAINING EMPLOYEES

A Checklist for Before You Begin

Bringing in an expert from time to time is exactly the wrong way to train employees. Fields offers these pointers:

* Forget the outside experts and those earnest types from your MIS department. The best training is done by peers; everyone else feels more relaxed working with one of their own who has learned the system.

* Exorcise computer phobias. Begin by letting people play computer games for an hour or two. At Mrs. Fields, every employee gets a diskette containing four games.

* Offer classes on a regular schedule, encouraging people to drop by to learn one or two new things.

* * *

HARDWARE

Buy the Best Computer System

The most essential business tool, says Fields, is a laptop computer that never, ever is more than 10 feet from you at any time. It's best to test several models yourself. Make sure yours has a hard drive, at least one megabyte of memory, a screen that's easy on your eyes, and a keyboard that feels right. Executives at Mrs. Fields use the NEC Ultralite; Randy also recommends the Compaq LTE and the Toshiba 1000 SE.

Desktop machines? Any IBM-compatible 386-based machine will do, as long as it has a good reliability record.

Moving Up Your company will outgrow its computer system as surely as your kids outgrow their overalls. The telltale sign? Applications take so long to run you could go to lunch after you hit the "execute" key. Don't hesitate to upgrade; your whole operation soon could be moving in slow motion.

HIRING

A 16-year-old Hacker Is What You Need

HACKERS NEEDED: Mrs. Fields Inc. is seeking knowledgeable computer professionals . . . A variety of positions are available in the most technologically advanced company in the restaurant industry. If you are an IBM PC/GURU send résumé to . . .

-- From a classified ad in the Salt Lake City Tribune

* * *

Eric Lowry gets a surprised look when he hands someone his business card. His title at Mrs. Fields: senior computer geek.

Randy Fields set up the guru department last year as an adjunct to the MIS department, which he says tends to look at long-term solutions to problems. "What the user wants," he says, "is a solution to his problem by tomorrow morning."

The gurus help users and troubleshoot the system to make the software more efficient. Last year Lowry assisted in developing software that made it easier to get critical information from Mrs. Fields's vast database. The result? One person now performs a job that had taken 14.

Who are the right people for the guru department? Look for hackers, says Fields, even 16-year-olds who can work summers. He sees Lowry as the example: a high-school dropout who spends most of his waking moments at a keyboard.

* * *

DEAR MRS. FIELDS (PART 1)

Here's What Our Customers Are Thinking

Perhaps the biggest advantage of Mrs. Fields's technology is it lets store managers "talk" directly to Debbi Fields via electronic mail. Two recent messages:

Hi Debbi. Customers are asking me what's in the product as some have allergies to corn, etc. How about an ingredient list?

I am interested in testing the new brownies in the Denver area . . . I know that my customers would buy the brownies, because I have so many ask about why we do not have them.

* * *

DEAR MRS. FIELDS (PART 2)

Here's What Our Competitors Are Doing

The company's electronic-message system is not one way from the store managers to Debbi Fields. When Debbi has an idea, she can go directly to the people selling her cookies. In January she began receiving answers to a question she asked her store managers: What's the competition up to? A response:

Competition analysis . . . Cookie Cafe: muffins all $1 size -- huge -- are .49. Appearance: good. Taste: somewhat dry but overall quite tasty. Cookies are all $1.25 -- ugly but still soft and chewy, not too sweet, either. -- Stephen D. Solomon

"You must be a computer user. Learn to type. Use a keyboard. If you don't learn at some point, you'll be a dinosaur."

Basic Maintenance A small oversight will defeat the most sophisticated computer system -- especially when it involves a regular maintenance procedure. Last year one of Debbi Fields's assistants printed out two days' worth of messages that had come in from managers of the cookie stores. Then she deleted the file. When Debbi got the stack of printouts, she discovered that every sheet was blank.

The store managers hadn't run out of ideas -- the printer had run out of ink.

"I want to take all the process work, all the paper, the dribble, off someone's plate so they can do more decision making and, ultimately, more abstract problem solving."

Randy Fields's Technology Reading List It's blessedly short. He skims a few computer magazines each month. PC Magazine, PC Week, PC/Computing, and PCResource are the best, he says. They help him gain a basic understanding of where management technology is and where it's going.

"Technology has to become a cultural issue. It can't be an add-on."

Faulty Thinking Randy Fields sees executives committing the same technology sins over and over again. To wit:

* Overestimating what computers can do. Computers won't solve all your problems, and they won't solve any unless well-trained employees use them.

* Underestimating what computers can do. "They see it as a fancy typewriter and use it for mailing lists and word processing," says Fields.

* Overbuying. True, you should buy a system big enough to accommodate your company's growth, but don't buy as if you're switching 3 billion calls through the Bell system.

* Underbuying. "I see executives buying used IBM XTs with a monochrome monitor and expect it to do desktop publishing," says Fields. "Forget it.'

"There's no foolproof security system for computers. But then a guy could set fire to your paper records room, too. Sabotage is sabotage."

What, Me Quit? Bugs in the system are discovered in numerous ways. Take the example of one job candidate who sat down at the keyboard to answer the same series of 150 multiple-choice questions every prospective employee faces.

He reached the end of the test and then pondered the question that popped up on the screen: "Do you want to quit?"

"No," he keyed in. So the test started all over again. An hour later the question popped up again. Undaunted by the challenge, the applicant started the test a third time.

Now, the final question reads: "Are you finished?"




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