Technological advances have revolutionised business. Design, production, finance, and every other function has been made more efficient by the application of the microchip. But have companies become too keen to lap up techno-hype, opting for overly complex systems when simple solutions would be more reliable? A classic example is that of spacemen writing in zero gravity. The Americans developed a pen with a built-in pump. Russian astronauts used a pencil. No guesses as to which was the cheaper and more reliable option.
Consultants say businesses face similar choices between simple and complex solutions, and often make the wrong choice. 'Companies are not clever enough about simplifying processes,' says Robert Suh, managing director of the global re-engineering practice at consultancy CSC Index. 'Technology is over-used in a lot of cases.' Suh has been trying to help companies decrease their dependence on technology and look for other solutions.' By way of example he compares car rental rivals Hertz and Avis in the US, which both run a bus service to collect customers at airport terminals and drop them off by their hire cars. Avis drivers input customer details into a hand-held computer which instructs staff to prepare the vehicles.
The system aims to improve customer service, but it defeats its own purpose because it is time-consuming. 'Avis buses come by about half as frequently as Hertz buses because they are over-automated,' says Suh.
One company that understood the simplicity message was Philips Medical, manufacturer of medical response imaging, which decided to streamline its telephone customer support service so that sophisticated, highly valued customers could be channelled to specialist operators. One option was to install an automatic number identification (ANI) system which recognises a customer type by its phone number and directs the call to a specified operator. The alternative was to give the top customers a separate service phone number. Philips chose the simpler, latter option. ANI systems are efficient for some organisations, notably hotel chains, with very high numbers of callers. But for Philips, with hundreds rather than thousands of customers, the ANI system would have been overly complex and expensive.
IT is too often used as a poor substitute for talking. A Swiss chemical company wanted to improve its forecasts of product demand. It invested in a planning and forecasting IT system that made predictions by analysing past trends. Another option was to improve communication between itself, its salesmen and their customers. The company decided to employ a member of staff dedicated to maintaining regular phone contact with the salesmen, who were similarly prompted to keep up-to-date with customer needs and in so doing avoided spending around two million Swiss francs (about £800,000).
But, says Ian Hosking, senior consultant with independent consultancy Logica, simple solutions are not always what the client wants. One company asked Hosking to develop a mobile computing solution for its team of engineers who travel from their homes to visit clients and who needed access to complex engineering plans. The client requested a technological solution.
However, since the engineers' work programmes were planned weeks in advance, Hosking concluded that the best solution was simply to send engineers copies of the plans by post. The client took some convincing.
Nobody is predicting a return to a Luddite mentality. 'There are many instances where hi-tech solutions pay off,' Hosking says. It's just a matter of recognising when hi-tech equals high efficiency, and when it doesn't.