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Don`t forget that face-to-face time

Do high-tech gadgets guarantee better communication?

As you e-mail, fax and post your work on the company intranet, don’t forget to occasionally walk down the hall or drive in to the office to remind yourself what your colleagues (and bosses) look like. It sounds silly now, but some day soon it might be a real task for many workers.

Increasingly the work that is being done, and the communications between workers and supervisors is not face to face.

But is that a good thing?

Mark Mumley, director of marketing for 1•2•1 Micro, thinks it’s more convenient for workers. “I got tied up here on the phone this morning,” he said recently from his home, “so instead of going to the office, I pulled out my stuff right here and plugged my laptop in and I can work out of my house. I don’t have to be in the office today. Or I’ll go in the office after lunch. So, what’s happening with this technology is it’s giving us a lot more convenience and freedom, I think.”

E-MAIL

Of course, that convenience and freedom is very popular with the employees. Cliff Brown, education consultant with Athena Learning Center, said e-mail sure beats the old messaging system using slips of paper.

“If I’m not here and you leave something on my desk, it might be gone when I get back. I live by my e-mail. I receive anywhere from 100 to 200 e-mails a day.”

But Joel McAllister, senior instructor for the same firm, agreed that e-mail is popular

“Once they get on the e-mail ride, it’s like a virus. They have to e-mail all their friends and family,” he said of workers. But he’s not so certain that managers see it as a communications boon.

“Managers are very worried about the loss of productivity, because people are shooting off e-mails rather than doing their job. But they found out that there is an initial productivity loss — the employees are going, ‘Oh, wow! Cool! New toys!’ — then they start to do their jobs. If I want to find out about something, I don’t have to walk down four floors, I can just e-mail someone and then not think about it.”

The important thing, McAllister said, is to view e-mail as another tool to improve productivity. “Using an e-mail or a messaging system has to be a conscious decision that the workflow incorporates.”

Explained McAllister: “There’re two flavors of e-mail. You’ve got your standard e-mail, which is freeware, like a utility called Pegasus, or just standard e-mail, where the only thing you can do is send and receive and that’s about it. Then when you go up to either Exchange or Groupwise, you have a workflow management suite. With that I can store my corporate documents in my e-mail. I can have everybody working from the same page and I only have to teach them one tool, and that tool is Exchange or Groupwise.”

This, then, is not just a better way to communicate, but a better way to work with others. “Novell has a feature called document management. Integrated with Groupwise, basically you can have separate versions of a project. If you decide you’re going entirely the wrong way with the proposal, you can go back a couple of versions without losing your work. If I want to buy a widget, I set it up so that every time I buy a widget, I start off this process, and it goes from me to whomever is in charge of buying this widget, then whomever is in charge of approving the widget purchase…then I can watch the process so I don’t have to carry the paper document around.”

McAllister said that a lot of law firms are taking advantage of this communication software. “Instead of sharing the big filing cabinets of paper, they’re now sharing their documents electronically, and they don’t have to go find the secretary who knows where the key is to go get the file out so they can go look at something. Anytime you want to share data between people, this is a mechanism to do it and you only have to teach them one tool.”

According to Mumley, the key technological components to improved internal communications are an intranet, e-mail, laptops and cell phone.

“Everybody’s getting laptops, they’re getting on the Internet, they’re doing some shopping, they’re buying their airline tickets, and they’re doing their business, they’re making more money. It’s a big convenience for a lot of people,” he said.

Tommy Wolf, wwner of Total Office Solutions, is not convinced that the technology has improved communications between businesses and customers.

“In my opinion, the only change that I see is that it’s weakening the company. A service-oriented company doesn’t have the people there to read the expression on a face, to get together at a certain time. There’s too much teleconferencing and calling into the mother office. There’s a better chance of you not getting heard, is what I see.”

Total Office Solutions does not sell and service copiers: “We used to sell copiers,” Wolf said. “Now we sell ‘digital network copying devices.’” We used to talk about copies per minute. Now we talk about pages per minute. Our mindset is not capturing the ‘copiers’ anymore, it’s capturing the ‘clicks.’”

SMALLER, LIGHTER COMPUTERS

However, Wolf does favor the “gadgets” for improving communication within a business. In his business, sub-notebooks are vital to technicians’ work. “We’re providing our salespeople and our service technicians with notebook computers. When you take a look at the notebooks, they’re kind of bulky, and you look at the slimlines and they tend to not be able to take a beating. We’ve decided to go with the new sub-notebooks. We’ve gone with the Ricoh Magio. It’s a two-pound sub-notebook that has a leather carrying case that you get from Ricoh. And when you look at it, it’s about the size of a Franklin Day Planner.”

The sub-notebook computer allows technicians to make more complex repairs on the spot. “Let’s say for instance you have a digital network output device. My technicians will download a fix for the software from the Web onto a network card. Then they’ll stick that network card into their notebook computer and go on the road. They’ll get to the customer’s office, plug into the back of the printer/copier/facsimile — the digital network output device — and they’ll download the changes. It doesn’t mess with the folks’ configuration. The only thing it’s going to do is provide more optimum copy quality, higher yield on their toner and their other consumables.”

All the notebooks have modems, so if they run into a problem, they can access, via their modem and the Internet, Savin technical support and talk to one of the folks while they’re there fixing the equipment.

While technicians are using the sub-notebooks to communicate with machines and technical support, sales representatives can communicate with Total Office Solutions to check on orders, Wolf said. “Sales reps can check availability of products , routing — and we’re selling 25 multifunction units a month — equipment that the customer is waiting on.

“The salespeople can check where an order is — is it in the staging area, is it being put together, if it’s on the truck, what time is it set to be delivered?”

In the end, these are tools to improve customer satisfaction. That can be achieved by making workers’ tasks easier, and providing the information that is needed when it is needed. Maybe there will be less interaction among employees, maybe not. But they’ll have no excuse for not communicating.

Contact MB
J contributing writer Kim M. Campbell at kim@datasync.com or
mbj@msbusiness.com.

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