Advice from IT: Next time, learn how to use a computer

When a core team member bows out, a crucial process hits an insurmountable obstacle -- until IT swoops in

Advice from IT: Next time, learn how to use a computer
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Information technology is there to help solve problems -- but only if people give it a chance. Many do. "Albert" didn't.

I met him on a Monday -- my first day at a new job. I was guided into the open plan office of my department, and all members of my new team stood up from their desks, walked over, introduced themselves, and shook hands with me ... except for Albert.

Albert remained seated, his gaze glued to his monitors and his hands firmly on keyboard and mouse -- clicking and typing away like a Morse code operator. Only when my new boss mentioned his name did Albert briefly look at me from the corner of his eyes and raise a hand to give me a quick, rather dismissive wave. With a raspy voice that matched his pale, sorrow-stricken face, he told me to ignore him because he wasn't really there.

My new boss explained, a bit embarrassed, that it was Albert's last day at work. It was even one day past that -- Albert had resigned from his job, which he had held since the early days of the company in order to move to another country to be closer to his girlfriend.

As part of the controlling department, it was Albert's duty to compile a weekly report on the ongoing performance of the company's products. That report was due to be sent to the executive management every Monday at noon on the dot. Even though Albert legally wasn't obligated to, he had come in voluntarily to compile and finish the report one last time and to hand over the process to a colleague, "Bob."

My new desk stood head-to-head with Albert's. Whenever I sat straight up in my office chair, I could get a look above and across both of our monitors and glance at whoever was sitting at Albert's desk. For the next few hours, it was Albert himself typing away, frantically busy. Then after the report was turned in, for a few minutes it was Albert explaining how to create the report to Bob, with Bob exclaiming in astonishment at how simple it seemed.

Then Albert got up. His face looked a tad rosier and more relaxed, and his posture straighter as if a labor of Sisyphus had finally been taken off his back. He smiled, said a brief farewell, and vanished.

Remove one piece and it all crashes down

Albert's chair remained vacant for the remainder of the week. On the following Monday morning, with mere hours to go until the weekly deadline, Bob sat into it. He started the computer, clicked about to bring up the files he needed to create the report, and froze. Unlike with Albert, there were no sounds of frantic clicking and typing, only silence.

I gazed at Bob a couple of times, noting as the creases on his brow grew deeper while his free hand held a firm clasp over his mouth. Eventually, Bob got up and started to talk to our boss. Next, they were seated around Albert's former desk, obviously discussing an issue with Bob's first time compiling that weekly report.

Meanwhile the clock was ticking ever closer to the deadline. Soon, more colleagues joined them, likewise taking a seat. The problem seemed serious, so I offered to help in any way I could.

Before someone could explain to me what was going on, our boss and Bob agreed that it would be best to call Albert and ask for a proper explanation. The boss left to make the SOS call, and the other colleagues returned to their work. Bob turned to me with worry and disbelief in his voice and explained what was causing him to panic.

The report was due in a certain format. Both source and target files were spreadsheets, and the source file was a raw data dump from an ERP system that kept track of nearly everything. For each product of the company, it listed all the available KPIs (key performance indicators) for each day of the past week. A selection of the KPIs had to be copied manually to the target spreadsheet. Next, totals formula for the entire week had to be added manually for each KPI. This was to be done per product, per product group, and overall.

When Albert had explained this task to Bob, it had sounded easy. But now it seemed insurmountable because the company served several hundred products. There were tens of thousands of KPIs and hundreds of thousands of rows of raw data. Compiling the report the way Albert had explained was simply impossible until the deadline -- it would likely take several days.

Our boss returned after managing to reach Albert at the phone number he'd left in case we had questions. He had confirmed that yes, that was the way to compile this report: Sieve through, copy, paste, and sort all this data manually over the course of several days.

The boss had asked Albert more questions and found out that initially, when the company had only a few products, the task had taken him only a couple of minutes. But as the company's product line grew over time to several hundred, so had the time it had taken Albert each week -- until it had taken him the better part of an entire workweek to compile the report. Albert had confessed this task was the actual reason why he had left the job, the company, and the country.

Why hadn't he spoken up earlier? He had worked doggedly each week, never considering to speak up or change the process as the weekly workload got out of hand bit by bit.

Programs to the rescue

Bob had been showing me the report and outlining the problem, and when the boss returned with the news about the manual aspect to the task, I asked if I could try a possible solution. We had two hours to go until the weekly deadline.

In 15 minutes, I wrote and tested a short program that automated the task, explained it to Bob, and got it running. The program finished compiling the report within 10 minutes, down from the 30 hours it had taken Albert.

It might be part of startup culture to let employees figure out how to do their tasks without bothering to increase overall efficiency, but it's a bad idea to keep it up once the work balloons and steals time from other tasks. Further, with information technology being ubiquitous and able to both help or hinder task execution, it's a good idea to equip all staff members with at least a little knowledge on how to use IT to ease their workload.

Epilogue: Bob taught himself programming, and the ERP was extended by a web interface that let executive managers inquire directly and see the KPIs live. Soon thereafter, a suggestion scheme was instituted to let employees identify changing company needs and help steer IT and progress to keep up with them.

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