Creating the Homework Machine

Oct 01, 2009
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

Jay Harris,
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

The apparel
executive first recalled a children’s book, Danny Dunn and the Homework
, 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.”

Mr. Harris
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
apparel industry.

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.

Windows 2000
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.”

Mr. Harris
attributed his organization’s shortcomings to fear of change and time
management challenges.

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
were realized.

“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.

Since incorporating
these changes, employees have been working together on stress management,
finding time, and tapping their imagination.

“Business processes
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.”

Discussion Questions:
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?

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7 Comments on "Creating the Homework Machine"

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Dick Seesel
11 years 7 months ago

The question that should be asked about any new technology is, “Will it help me to do my job better?” More specifically, will it make me more time-productive in order to spend more of my working hours thinking creatively or providing management development to the people who work for my company? Too often, the answer turns out to be “no.”

Think about how we have become slaves to e-mail, both at our desktop and laptop computers and increasingly on mobile devices. E-mail is one of those technological breakthroughs that make the modern business world function, but it has come at a price in terms of overcommunication vs. smart time management.

David Dorf
11 years 7 months ago

People are slow to adopt new technology because it requires an up-front investment without a guaranteed return–that equates to risk. The bigger the investment, like switching to a new email client, the less attractive the endeavor. The best innovators are also the risk-takers. To encourage this behavior, people must be allowed to fail. They need time to recover, and they need to know they won’t be penalized. This is a culture shift for many companies, and it starts by holding reasonable risk-taking in high esteem.

At Oracle Retail, we have a backlog of ideas that become proof-of-concept projects, usually lasting 2-8 weeks. Most of these ideas never go anywhere, but they always inspire additional ideas.

Max Goldberg
11 years 7 months ago

The best way to communicate with employees or customers is to use a story. The human brain is hardwired to listen to stories. Stories can bring a new perspective, motivate and support company goals. Too many companies rely on numbers as a means of communication. Stories can cut though the clutter and stay with an employee or customer long after a number has been forgotten.

Mark Burr
11 years 7 months ago
I think there are a couple of basic facts. As mentioned, first it must be shown through real proof of concept that it will actually help employees to do their job better or allow them to do a different aspect of their job versus the burden relieved by the intended innovation. Secondly, train them effectively. All too often, training is an afterthought and an inconvenience, dealt with at the last minute pending implementation. Further, exceptional training enables the ability to prove the concept hands-on. It’s something that should be part of the process up front, and developed throughout preparation for implementation. In addition, measure and continuously measure. Show employees the results. Too often, technology is implemented and then it’s on to the next thing. Part of the success measurement should be providing feedback on proof of return on investment. In addition, sharing these measurements shows the results of employee effort in a successful implementation. It simply follows the concept that you get what you talk about and you get what you measure. If you have… Read more »
Carol Spieckerman
11 years 7 months ago

I think the conversation has changed. The first challenge isn’t embracing new technologies, it’s narrowing down the options and deciding which ones are most meaningful and supported (or on the other extreme, banned) by the larger organization. After that, I’m with Scanner; training is critical. Too often, I see companies expecting their employees to learn new technologies on their own time or they assume that those who come into the organization “trained” will stay that way, even as technologies evolve.

Gene Detroyer
11 years 7 months ago

The most common breakdown in adopting new technology for retailers is the disconnect between upper management and the people who have to execute it. This comes in two forms.

A tech company presents a solutions program to upper management that will give them all the information they want, solve all their dislocation problems, do it in real time, and increase their profit by 25%. Upper Management buys in and the company tries to implement, only to find that they need more people and more time to implement a system that gives them small to no incremental benefit.

Or, tech company presents and sells a solutions program that actually works and despite the fact that it provides business-changing information, upper management continues to rely on comfortable old systems, demanding the same old processes and reports as they always received.

Mark Price
Mark Price
11 years 7 months ago
Opportunities for the retail industry to leverage technology to improve the customer experience are almost unlimited. Few retailers beyond the top 20% have made much progress in leveraging customer data to personalize communications both through email/direct mail and through the in-store experience. While technology is a hurdle, change management is the far greater one. One approach we have seen to be successful is to leverage insights from Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm,” applied to a business environment. 1. Find the early adopters in your retail team, involve them in the process of determining how to use the technology/information to improve customer experience.2. Provide them with a “scotch tape and bubble gum” low-tech approach to getting it done. 3. Once the pilot has proven successful, get the early adopters to advocate for you with the rest of the retail team, rather than having marketing or headquarters represent it. This 3-step approach is the framework we have found most successful for change management, especially in retail. Nurture your early adopters and they will become your advocates with… Read more »

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