How to bring your employees into the computer age

So, you spent all this time learning about the capabilities of information technology. You figured out what technology your business could use. And then, being thrifty, you shopped for the best prices and terms. Now what have you forgotten?

Your people, of course. They have to use this stuff. Maybe they won't want to.

In 1983 Neal Hill and three partners launched a new advertising agency in Boston: Rossin Greenberg Seronick & Hill (RGS&H). The other three were advertising veterans, but Hill was not. His background was marketing, public relations, and consulting. So while his partners' responsibility was to create great ads, Hill's job as president and chief executive officer was to build an organization that would support them. He started looking into how advertising agencies work.

What Hill learned surprised him. Most of the energy at an advertising agency does not go into creating ads. Creating ads is what some of the people do after they've taken care of everything else they have to do. Worse, most employees never even get close to the creative process.

To a greater or lesser extent, the same situation prevails in most professional service firms and in most offices. Law is what most lawyers practice, accounting is what most accountants perform, and design is what most architects do -- after client conferences, research trips, partners' meetings, project reports, sales presentations, performance reviews, and so on.

At ad agencies specifically, most of the effort is invested in moving information around: from the client to the account service group to copywriters, artists, production, media placement, and to accounting and management. And not serially, either. The copy people are writing while the media people are strategizing; accounting wants billing info while production is trying to get finished art ready. Service reps have to stay current in all the departments so they can assure nervous clients that, yes, everything is moving along just fine. And then, of course, the senior people have to manage the junior people, who do most of this information tracking, which accounts for even more noncreative time.

None of that upset Hill's partners. As advertising veterans, they understood that that was the way the agency business worked. But Hill, with his naïveté, figured there had to be a better way. Why couldn't you use information technology -- computers -- to help manage the information, freeing up the people to spend more time on the creative work? But advertising, people told him, is a creative business, and you can't automate creativity.

Well, it wasn't creativity Hill wanted to automate. It was everything else, and that, it turns out, is quite possible. What can be difficult, however, is finding a way of bringing information technology into a company where people not only don't know how to use it, but think they don't need it and aren't eager to learn. To their credit, Hill and Ernie Capobianco, the agency's chief financial officer (who also had no advertising background), managed to move the company into the world of technology with unusual adroitness. It took them several years. An unusually long time? Not at all. And judged by its results, their strategy was a good one.

Hill understood that decisions about which technology -- what kinds of machines, software, capabilities, and so on -- were not going to be his first problem. In fact, he had plenty of time to work on those questions, because he first had to persuade the agency's senior management that information technology could give the new firm a major strategic advantage. He may have been the CEO, but he had partners who would be the senior creative people. If they didn't buy into the technology strategy, it wouldn't work. He needed more than just their concurrence in the financial decision; he needed their enthusiasm and support. He needed them to use the technology. If they didn't, the people who worked with and for them wouldn't be inclined to do so either.

So the first part of Hill's three-part strategy was to get senior management behind the idea by persuading them to use some elementary technology. He didn't start out with the major systems he knew he'd eventually want to buy. He just wanted something plain vanilla that would get the idea across and establish a precedent. He targeted RGS&H's crusty chairman, Jack Rossin, and employed the camel's nose tactic.

"Early on," Rossin says, "Neal said he wanted to get a word processor. I was against it -- out of ignorance. I didn't know what it was." But they got one, a stand-alone word processor that also had some database-management capabilities. Hill got Rossin to try it. "All of a sudden my capacity to do the paperwork quadrupled," Rossin remembers, and the next thing he knew Hill had brought three word processors into the still-tiny firm. The number eventually reached nine.

Rossin turned out not to be a difficult sale, but he could have been. At any rate, part one of the strategy worked. The chairman was hooked; top management was on board. Now, as Hill began to move through the long process of finding the hardware and software that he and Capobianco would eventually install, he knew that the issue of whether to computerize was resolved. He could concentrate on the other questions -- what and how.

Answering those other questions consumed several years, but as the installation date hove into view, it was time to move to stage two of the acceptance strategy: convincing the troops to use it. Hill and Capobianco decided to find and recruit an advocate. They wanted someone on the professional working level who carried a lot of influence with his or her peers, someone whose example would be persuasive. And they wanted a skeptic, someone they'd have to convert. Converted disbelievers, like reformed smokers, make powerful advocates.

They chose Jay Williams, a vice-president and associate creative director. His job is writing ad copy, and he'd never had a personal computer on his desk before. "He's an example setter," Capobianco says. "We were worried about him."

Now, they have no stronger advocate. "I was a little apprehensive," Williams admits. "I thought it would be faster my old way, but that turned out not to be true. . . . The more we got into it, the more sense it made. I became a true convert in a lot less time than I thought."

The third part of the acceptance strategy was designed to hook potential users, which at RGS&H amounted to everyone from the chairman to the receptionist. The challenge was to think of some way to compel people to use the system while ensuring that their first experience would be a good one. Some people wouldn't need forcing, of course. Curiosity alone would motivate them to explore the capabilities of the new boxes that were about to appear on their desks. But others would need a push.

The tactic they used gave people no choice but to turn on their computers while making sure that they came out winners in their first encounter.

One Monday, Ivan Dunmire, the agency's director of administrative services, simply eliminated telephone message slips. If people wanted their messages they had to go into the computer to get them. There was no way to avoid it. But calling up phone messages was easy -- it required just six keystrokes. The point was that anyone could do it. And so they did. Nervous people lost their inhibitions. Skeptics had at least one use for the machine. And after the tension was broken, Capobianco says, most people kept on exploring the system's capabilities, which is what he and Hill had hoped would happen.

Since they first computerized the agency a year and a half ago, Hill and Capobianco have added features and capabilities to their system at a rate intended not to overwhelm the people who use it. "It took some getting used to," says account executive Carole Alexander, whose job was one of those most affected by the changes the system has wrought, "but I think it's wonderful."

So does RGS&H chairman Rossin. Look what it's done for productivity. In 1986, before computerization, the agency employed 26 people to generate $12.7 million in billings, or roughly 2 people per million billing dollars. Now, billings have doubled to $25 million, but the employee count has climbed by just 5. RGS&H now requires only 1.2 people to generate a million billing dollars. The agency paid for its computer system in salary savings alone.

That, however, is not what excites Rossin -- or the rest of the people there. They say they're enjoying work a lot more, because they've got more time to do the work they like to do. And they claim, of course, that their product is better. "I'm glad other agencies have decided to stay in the Dark Ages," Rossin says, "because we now have something over them."


Getting the most from that expensive new technology

You can spend lots of money on fancy technology, install it, and watch nothing much happen. Or, maybe worse, you can watch chaos ensue. Both are shock responses, and neither is what you want. You can help avoid technology shock in your business by using Rossin Greenberg Seronick & Hill's three-part acceptance strategy.

* Make believers of your top management. Real office automation -- involving electronic mail, computerized calendars, word processing, transaction processing, and so forth -- has to involve everyone in the organization. If senior managers don't support and use the new systems, you haven't really moved your business into the information age. You've just automated a few functions.

* Recruit or, better yet, create technology advocates. Find people in your organization who have lots of influence with their peers and colleagues. Do whatever you must to get them excited and enthusiastic about the new system. They'll then help you sell it to other people.

* Make the first encounter a win. Some people won't use the new technology until you make them. So make them, but be sure they come out on top in their first match with the machine. Give them something easy to do, so they'll learn that pushing the wrong button won't blow up the office. You can't really teach people anything new until they've conquered their fear.