Furniture, technology, and the infinite value of knowledge

I recently returned from a business trip where I had the opportunity to meet with a financial institution that had grown significantly beyond its original roots over the past few years through a combination of hard work and acquisition.

These were good, hard-working folks who were very much invested in their organization and had risen through the ranks – many of them working their way up the organizational ladder into positions of leadership.

Our purpose in meeting with them was to discuss how upgrading their current technology platform could help automate and help keep them competitive in today’s ever-changing technology market place.

We took the time to listen to their issues, met with front line staff on what they hoped upgrading their technology would help them with, and reviewed with senior management the results of our interviews. Management politely listened as we outlined what we had discovered during our visit and laid out our strategy, time frames, and technology recommendations to accomplish these objectives.

When we had finished our discussions, we were asked to return with a formal pricing proposal and a more detailed plan that would accomplish the requisite tasks discussed – along with a realistic time frame to do so.

After much discussion with our tech and project management teams, we prepared our proposal. We factored in the time, technology, and budget costs and scheduled a call to review the proposal with the senior team.

During the call there were many questions – along with concerns over costs, time frames, and worry of meeting all objectives. As we worked our way through each area of the project, it became apparent that their senior team really lacked a thorough understanding of today’s technology. In fact, we were floored when one of the team members actually posed the question what the costs were to simply pull out the technology all together and just revert back to manual processes.

To say we were stunned would be the understatement of the century. I simply bit my tongue and in the most unemotional response I could think of I simply said this, “It would cost you your jobs and your financial institution. Simply put, it would be impossible to go backwards, period.”

We ended our discussions and our team sat in complete silence and bewilderment that a senior management team would even think that reverting back to manual processes could be a possibility.

We received a few “private” phone calls over the following weeks from other members of their management team assuring us that not all felt that going backwards was an option. They were also working on “educating” the other members of their team on what really needed to happen to remain competitive and truly serve their staff and members best interests.

What was interesting is that the few senior team members who were the “hold backs” were ones that had earned their stripes coming up through the ranks but had never really taken the time to have a mindset of continual learning or self-improvement. Furthermore, because they had never worked anywhere else, they had never really learned the value of looking to the outside for best practices and simply assumed they had all the answers.

I compare this scenario to a friend of mine who owns a very successful printing, production, and manufacturing company that is continually investing in making sure their equipment, business processes and people are always in a state of modernization and continual learning.

In fact, although it’s a family business, the owner insists that there only be one family member as a senior management team member. And even before they are allowed to work in the company, they must work for others in the same industry for a period of about 10 years.

When I asked why such strict rules, he simply told me this: “Our company has been in business for over 100 years. It is imperative that we maintain our edge in our technology, our people, and our methodologies.

“If we simply allowed the same old things to go on as they always have, we would be out of business in a few years. If we allowed family members to think they would be taken care of without investing in their own education and skill sets, they would simply fail as human beings, as well.”

I thought that was a pretty blunt and to-the-point response. But it is pretty hard to argue with someone who has an Ivy League education, was forced to go through the same apprenticeship as was his father, and now, in turn, has continued the legacy with his own son. Other family members do not work there.

After we had discussed his operation and I shared my experience with him about our recent engagement, he looked me right in the eye and said, “Fire them. They are not worth any more of your time or your company’s efforts.”

He was most direct in his further rants as to why – which I will spare you but can be summarized as follows:

“This organization has failed to properly develop their people through ongoing education and by allowing a culture to exist where mediocrity was acceptable, status quo was the norm, and position given based on tenure instead of performance. Furthermore, to even think about going backwards with its technology shows a complete lack of vision and will most certainly be rewarded with failure in the future.”

My first reaction was: Wow, that was incredibly harsh. But in reality he was spot on.

I must admit that during the 30 years I have worked in this industry, we have had our fair share of engagements where management teams really didn’t have the knowledge or background needed to properly execute their technology objectives. But to their credit, they retained subject matter experts who were able to help them develop their long-range goals and objectives and set up programs that would bring them along with the staff up to speed. They also were able to convince management that bringing in qualified outside people and ideas would help ensure their long-term future, as well.

As I have thought about these recent experiences, there are a couple of conclusions I would draw on not only from my personal experiences but also those that come from my relationships with a number of highly successful entrepreneurs and business people.

Here are my top 10 thoughts:

  1. Hire good people and provide them with the tools and ongoing education to keep them viable. Do not settle for status quo or mediocrity.
  2. Invest wisely in your technology and keep moving forward. It is Ok to look back and learn from your mistakes, but no one ever crossed the finish line going in reverse.
  3. Look to your industry peers and be willing to adopt new ideas, processes and technologies to stay ahead of your competition.
  4. Adopt of culture of listening. That is, one where you value what your employees, members, and vendors are saying to you. They are the ones who will usually spot trends, problems, and opportunities first.
  5. Be agile! Be willing to implement new ideas if they make sense. Do not procrastinate too long as opportunities tend to pass by quickly – that is not to say act without thought or investigation. But once a decision is made, go for it!
  6. Insist on continuing education for everyone. Look for industry, technology, and self-improvement programs to name a few. Many of your vendors offer excellent educational opportunities for little or no cost and, although obviously slanted toward their solutions, are still broad enough to be of value to you.
  7. Create member, vendor, and employee focus groups that can help you set your long term strategies.
  8. Make a decision. I have said it many times: Good decisions take care of themselves, bad decisions can be fixed, but indecision will kill you.
  9. There is a huge difference between price and cost. Price is what you pay for something. Cost is what it means to your organization, your members, and you personally.
  10. ROI is worthless unless you can define what it means. It is not strictly tied to money. That would be called investment and would fall under a completely different scope of measurement. What we are talking about here are improvements in your organization and they may be tied to your ability to stay in business, growing your company, improving processes, etc. But it is rarely tied to what you pay for something and a CFO who must be able to “cost justify” every decision. Won’t happen; get over it.

I can give you one final personal example of this very lesson from my own life. When my wife and I were first married and struggling with balancing our incomes against our home improvement needs, we were faced with having to balance our budgets against the “Price vs. Cost” conundrum.

We could purchase a complete set of furniture at a discount warehouse against purchasing well-made components from a quality manufacturer but would only be able to afford one or two components at a time and spread out over a few years.

Our parents were products of the depression and they told us that we would be much happier buying quality and doing with less than saving a few dollars on the front end but paying more in the long run.

We should have listened. We chose poorly. We opted to buy cheap furniture so we could have it all.

What we learned and later put into play was that making rash decisions based on emotion and “Price” left out the most important aspect: “Cost.”

We ended up throwing most of the furniture away a few years later as it simply fell apart and did not last. We ended up buying quality the next time around – even though it meant taking several years to complete the project. That furniture has continued to last through today. And because we bought quality and knew the style would remain viable, it has and was the right decision.

So what does furniture and technology have to do with each other?

Simply this: Don’t be put off by price. Look down the road, do your research, and invest the time to make sure you are making the best decisions you can. Where appropriate, consult with others who know more than you do and be willing to heed their advice.

Happy Holidays!

Scott Cowan

Scott Cowan

Over the past 25 years, Mr. Cowan has held Executive Technical Sales and Management positions with several Fortune 500 companies including: Fiserv, Qwest Communications and Nokia Internet Communications, Network Security ... Web: Details

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