Managers continually complain about the time they must spend keeping up to date, determining what information is important, reviewing past decisions, and communicating with peers and staff. Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) and other regulatory requirements have only exacerbated the problem, and internal controls require managers to document decisions. Who made them? Who approved them? What were their impacts? Put simply, managers are spending more time racing from meeting to meeting trying to find answers to the five Ws than they are managing.
Although technology causes much of the information overload, technology can also offer ways to combat it. But it's not your father's technology; it's a new breed of software that holds promise for helping managers focus on critical information without having to wade through all the distracting and irrelevant noise of daily office work.
Users have dubbed this new breed of software "Task-Oriented Applications" or TOAs. Information Age referred to these high-performance office systems as "a new generation of people-centric collaborative information management tools [that] is set to produce the first fundamental advances in personal productivity since the arrival of the spreadsheet."
To many, that may sound like just more hype. Time will tell if TOAs will be true "breakthrough" applications or will be relegated to the scrap-heap of "next great things." But looking at the benefits corporations can achieve, the level of interest, and the resources that major corporations are devoting to them, most organizations should be giving TOAs serious consideration.
Will TOAs truly be breakthrough applications? Consider what Tom Austin, a vice president with Gartner Research, wrote, "Maximum long-term growth in most enterprises will come from workplace investments that focus on helping people do what isn't amenable to traditional structured techniques, but that can improve the ability of those people to do what is uniquely human -- deal with, explore and analyze the unknown or unexpected; innovate or create new approaches, processes, products or market segments; and collaborate with others to help them do such things." If businesses are to respond to the demands that Austin so clearly describes, it sure appears that there is a need for a true breakthrough.
Information systems have gone through a natural evolution, starting with mainframe systems, continuing to PC-based systems, and now, on to Task-Oriented Applications.
Encouraging collaboration and coordination, documenting activities and decisions, separating the important from the unimportant, and meeting regulatory requirements, while giving managers more time to manage, is the promise of Task-Oriented Applications. Rather than having rigid frameworks like yesterday's mainframe applications or uncoordinated processes like most PC applications, TOAs focus on the activity to be completed. And while they support core business needs, it is important not to confuse them with accounting or project management systems. In short, they are activity management systems and activity management facilitators.
TOAs have a variety of features depending on the vendor and their intended purpose. Most share a common set of objectives, the most important being improving activity management and promoting more effective group working environments. To a greater or lesser extent, TOAs do the following:
- Have the ability to support people- and group-driven tasks or activities
- Provide compliance control and auditability to ensure that people work within the requirements of today's regulated environment and company policies
- Provide accountability and traceability by tying all activities and decisions to those responsible
- Increase agility by allowing the application to change as business requirements change
- Are the institutional memory (repository) that documents all decisions and their rationales
- Provide real-time performance information that is predictive, efficient, and the basis for future business decisions
- Encourage and enhance communication and collaboration
- Provide easy access to all information
Differences between TOAs usually center on the specific industries they support, the size of organization for which they were designed, the capability and effort required to tailor the TOA to specific customer environments, the technical staff customers must have to install and maintain the TOA, and the hardware and software technologies that customers must support. These differences become apparent when we look at some early TOA offerings.
InFocus, developed by Attunity, was designed to enhance "collaborative working, social networking, content and knowledge creation and corporate speed." Attunity suggests that InFocus is appropriate for managing SEC compliance, managing timely hospital patient discharge, ensuring SOX compliance, managing manufacturing processes, and detecting fraud. Most customers are large corporations, such as Norandal USA, which manufactures aluminum foil and steel products in four plants, and the Balli Group, which is the world's largest private commodity trader. InFocus uses a variety of technologies from numerous vendors and appears to have significant technical support requirements.
UK-based Procession offers a suite of products for large organizations, such as the Bank of Scotland and UK Sport. Applications that Procession systems support include financial forecasting, grant management, and supply chain control. Like Attunity, Procession uses a variety of technologies, and its customers appear to have the technical staffs required to implement and support the applications.
Palm Harbor, Florida–based TOA Solutions products differ from those of Attunity and Procession. Rather than supporting large organizations, its products are for small and medium-size organizations and departments within larger ones. Facilitating this scale of deployment are multiple features, including using standard Microsoft products and technologies, which reduce or eliminate the need for in-house technical staff; simplifying the process for tailoring the application for a customer so that it can be done by a clerical person in four to eight hours; and, possibly most important, costing less than most common desktop business applications.
Early evidence suggests that TOAs can change the way people interact with one another by putting the person rather than the software in charge. Early adopters are supporting non-structured activities that, until now, weren't supported by technology. TOAs have the potential to solve problems faced by all managers and information workers whether they are in small, medium or large organizations. Now is the time to take control of information overload and get back to managing your organization. The stakes could not be higher in today's unforgiving business environment.
About the author: Ronald Aronica is president of Greystone Group Inc., a Florida-based management and information systems consultancy. He has more than 30 years' experience assisting organizations of all sizes, both in the United States and abroad, increase the benefits they receive from their information systems. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Death of "e" and the Birth of the Real New Economy and The World is Flat? A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman's New York Times Bestseller.