Two years ago whenever ICL customer service director Roger Burrell asked his managers about trends in the business, they would respond with a scratch of the head and burrow into six months' worth of paperwork. If he was lucky, he would get an answer three days later. Today, when he asks the same questions, he dashes out the requests via a keyboard to the Commander - an imposing 54-inch screen terminal on his desk - and has his answers instantly.
For the uninitiated, the new wave of computer "management systems" that allow this time-saving may seem a good thing, but hardly the stuff to knock your socks off. But to think in those terms is to miss the point. "The real benefit," says Burrell, "is that the issues that require management attention - the hot button items so to speak - almost float to the surface. Whereas previously, everybody was drowned in paper, and you had to go looking for issues."
Burrell, an ICL man for 28 years, two years ago took a standard Comshare Commander software package and developed his own personalised management system. A giant terminal, which can show up to eight graphs at a time, was set up in his office, and soon his top 12 managers were also plugged in (their screens, of course, being more modestly sized).
Today, by way of the Commander, as it is affectionately known, Burrell monitors the productivity of his 2,700 staff division and oversees product performance by noting what service visits are called for. He uses it also to keep track of finance issues, staffing and customer feedback.
Burrell admits a certain satisfaction from the reaction he gets from open-mouthed visitors and clients when they are first confronted by the intimidating machine, but he insists the key to his enthusiasm is that by having past records on tap he can fine tune for future needs. For example, if his customer base changes, Burrell can quickly predict what new services he will have to deliver, and what new products or skills he will need to do so. Later he can judge the results of the new formula.
Admittedly, this image of a grandmaster with every chess piece at his fingertips is prone to scepticism - if only because the human links can so easily fail. But Burrell says he has results to prove his case - and with a divisional payroll of £66 million, every 1% that he can improve productivity is worth £660,000. His records show that service levels have improved considerably. Three years ago some country service calls could take up to 20 hours to complete. Today's average "call-to-fix" time is less than 4.5 hours. In-house surveys showing rising customer satisfaction confirm his faith. Even at the top the new team member has made a difference, he says. "I would say the Commander has improved the effectiveness of my top management team by 20%."
Not surprisingly, the initial introduction of the machine was viewed with some trepidation by his managers. "They would sit there gobsmacked and I would put in the info and they would say, 'Oh yeah, we'll have to go look at that.' But once they had access to the same information, they were thrilled." By the time the boss pointed out a problem, they already had it half solved. Such are the wonders of glasnost. And such is the ability of the computer - particularly if you get a devotee like Burrell - to deliver it.