Creating the Homework Machine
By Tom Ryan
chief operating officer and executive vice president of Charles Komar & Sons,
recently wrapped a children’s book from 1959, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer
and “pizza stress” parties into a lesson on the challenges of technology
executive first recalled a children’s book, Danny Dunn and the Homework
Machine, from his childhood that demonstrated how “imagination” drives
innovation. In the book, a professor puts Danny in charge of a computer
he’s created, and Danny and his friends decide to turn it into a “homework
machine” to “free up time to do more productive things – such as
play ball, swim, fly kites…” Although countless hours are spent figuring
out how to input data, the boys get the machine to work and are rewarded
by the professor.
“What is interesting
is that Professor Bullfinch knew he had created a machine capable of
solving problems and formatting information but he really did not know
what to do with it to make it useful,” said Mr. Harris. “It was a
child’s imagination who thought of a use. To dream the seemingly
impossible and work to make it happen.”
was speaking at the Fashion Institute of Technology on behalf of CGS
(Consumer Generated Solutions), which launched its BlueCherry Infinity
enterprise software solution as a potential “homework machine” for the
But much of
Mr. Harris’ speech addressed frustrations around exploiting innovation.
While Word and WordPerfect indeed became “homework machines” by making
typewriters obsolete, Excel 3.0’s arrival in the early nineties soon
became “homework hell” as hours of manual data entry were required to
fill those powerful spreadsheets.
promised to eliminate much of that work. Mr. Harris said he was blown
away while fortunately attending the launch event, which ended in “thunderous
applause.” But that mood quickly changed after a happenstance meeting
afterwards with Mr. Ballmer, now Microsoft’s CEO, in the bathroom. While
Mr. Harris marveled at how Windows 2000 had revolutionized brokerage
trading by linking real-time access to trades via Excel, Mr. Ballmer
only lamented, “I cannot seem to get the message out.”
Those “unsettling” remarks
long resonated as Charles Komar continually found itself with “incredible
tools with awesome potential yet user reluctance to change.”
attributed his organization’s shortcomings to fear of change and time
As a result,
a section on “Coping with Change” was added to Charles Komar’s mission
statement. Team discussions were repeatedly held to underscore that “it
is natural to feel stressed.” Stress was “celebrated” as symptoms appeared
with employees encouraged to ease each other’s tensions. Pizza stress
parties emphasized, “It’s OK to make mistakes.” Although such fears are
never completely eliminated, Mr. Harris eventually “did not get the automatic
push back” when asking employees to take on new challenges.
At the same
time, employees were encouraged to reallocate their workday to participate
in larger corporate goals of productivity. A metaphor, “Sand, Pebbles,
Rocks and Boulders,” symbolized the effort. “Sand” represents daily activities
indistinguishable from other companies’ efforts with the others representing
a progression up to “Boulder,” where significant time and money savings
“Once the concept
of ‘Sand, Pebbles, Rocks and Boulders’ was in place, it is possible to
ask an employee “How can you structure your job so the tiniest amount
of the job is sand (day to day activities) while the rest is the pursuit
of operational improvement opportunities?” said Mr. Harris.
these changes, employees have been working together on stress management,
finding time, and tapping their imagination.
were created, refined, streamlined, embedded and monitored,” said Mr.
Harris. “And very curiously my phone and inbox got quiet as employees
became empowered to dream, imagine, solve and improve on their own.”
What are some of the best strategies to get employees to embrace new
technologies? How do you overcome “fear of change” around such implementations?
How do you help employees “find the time” to tackle these projects?