Posted: May 25th, 2022
New Computer System for the 21st Century Business Office
It is impossible to imagine that any business can be run in the 21st century without an adequate computer system. And yet therein lies the rub: Determining what computer system is adequate for any business purpose is in fact a complex and difficult process in many cases. All too often what happens when a manager is faced with choosing a new computer system (usually at the point when the old one has completely crashed, losing valuable information that wasn’t backed-up) is that he or she finds the brochure that’s on the top of the pile and orders that computer system.
But this is not the way to proceed. Acquiring the right information system is essential in keeping a company healthy. This paper examines a real-world case of a corporation – in this case, Toys R Us – adopted a new computer information system, examining what went right in the process and what went wrong and what those involved might learn from this experience to make the next shift in information technology (for in the 21st century there will always be a next shift) go more smoothly.
A key element of analyzing the decision by Toys R Us executives to adopt various forms of Microsoft software is to investigate how closely these computer information systems mesh with the company’s internal social and organizational structure, for software is only as useful as it is can be used by the particular workers involved.
Competition is fierce in the retail toy industry, especially as more large discount chains enter the market. To help keep its competitive edge, Toys R Us, the worlds leading toy retailer, adopted Microsoft’s Exchange Server and Microsoft NetMeeting’s to improve communication among the company’s national offices and U.S. distribution centers. Thus one of the key questions that must be addressed here is to what extent the company’s changes in its internal organization and especially in its communications infrastructure were sufficient to enable it to meet the challenges that it will face in the future.
Any company that is seeking to maintain its footing in the retail market – and even to expand its position – should consider implementing a systems approach to problem solving at every level. If such a system is in place it can be expanded; otherwise, it will have to be blended into every department. The approach used by this consulting firm in determining how smoothly the implementation of new computer systems went (along with how smoothly organizational changes were made to take advantage of new computing capabilities) must be considered by examining all of the departments.
This approach to analysis is referred to as the systems approach to problem solving, and it involves viewing the organization as a component of a larger environment with which it interacts. Furthermore, the organization itself is viewed as a system with mutually dependent components. The behavior of any particular department influences (and is influenced by) the behavior of other departments. A change in any one aspect of the company’s information system and/or organization must therefore be assumed to affect the entire company.
It is impossible, therefore, to assess how well changes in any one department have occurred without considering how the company as a whole has been effected.
The Goals and the Strategy
Toys R Us executives seem to have understood the importance of integrating al of their departments and understanding how they must interact with each other in choosing which computer information systems to adopt.
In order to assess the company’s performance we must know something about its basic structure. Toys R Us sells toys, games, and sporting goods in hundreds of Toys R Us stores, children’s apparel in its Kids R Us stores, and both clothes and accessories for young children in its Babies R Us stores. Like many other large corporations today, the organization is extremely geographically dispersed and its workers are split between a number of different divisions. Both of these aspects of the computer have tended in recent years to prevent efficient communication, and since efficient internal communication is essential to staying competitive for any large corporation, company executives decided three years ago to adopt new software that would substantially increase the efficiency and ease of internal communication.
The changes made by the company were in fact relatively simple; they did not incorporate cutting-edge technologies. (For example, the installation of Microsoft Exchange Server at the Toys R Us national offices and distribution centers allowed instant messaging to become an integral part of the workplace culture). This is a well-established technology in many businesses, but it was not being used by Toys R. Us. This is an important lesson for many managers: It is important to keep abreast of technological developments because one has to know what is available to take advantage of it.
Dan Hannay, director of operations development for Toys R Us, emphasizes the importance of something as simple as incorporating instant messaging:
Since we started using Microsoft Exchange Server, I would guess that, from my vantage point, productivity has increased by 400%. Everyone loves to check their e-mail every day, and because e-mail is the primary vehicle for communication, it’s essential to check it frequently.
In addition to using Exchange Server for daily communications, Toys R Us is employing Microsoft technologies to address a variety of longer-term needs and goals. For example, employees are now able to use Exchange Server public folders to collaborate on developing store promotions and a number of departments are able to take advantage of the “real-time” collaboration features of Microsoft NetMeeting rather than having to wait, as they did before, for ideas to circulate on paper through each department. Both the speed and the quality of communication is therefore improved: Workers hear about projects sooner and faster and from an accurate source. This means that they do not have to rely on gossip or memos that they cannot ask questions of and also that their opinions are now solicited at the beginning of a project when they can still be meaningfully incorporated.
Toys R Us chose to select an entire package of Microsoft products executives believed that this would cause fewer integration issues, according to Jim Longo, director of systems technology.
Its simpler for users if they don’t have to learn several different environments, and its easier for the IT department to support a single solution. An integrated solution also avoids the finger-pointing that typically happens when something goes wrong and you are using products from different vendors.
Such integration of technology is essential and can be furthered by an even greater reliance on the part of the company on both wide-area and local-area networks. A local network system, or LAN as it is far more commonly called. In computer science, a local area network is simply a group of computers and other devices dispersed over a relatively limited area and connected by a communications link that enables any device to interact with any other on the network. The opposite of a LAN is a Wide Area Network in which the physical components of the system are spread out over a much longer distance from each other. A WAN is a much harder system to design because the components are generally not physically attached to each other by cables and other physical means as in a LAN. This is one of the major reasons that WANs are much more rarely seen.
A he other reason for the greater prevalence of LANs has less to do with the physical constraints of computer networked hardware and far more to do with common office practices: Most businesses tend to operate in a relatively restricted physical space, with the result that their computer networks are also installed in a relatively small space. (Of course, Toys R Us stores are very large, but the office space in their retail stores is in fact quite small and office space in corporate buildings is as tight as office space is everywhere.) Thus the importance of LANs to the workings of nearly all businesses today above the level of the very smallest of offices. Toys R Us has adopted computer information software that allows it to take advantage of the full range of services that a LAN can provide.
One specific use of the new bundle of Microsoft information software by the company was the integration of promotional strategies. To take advantage of business opportunities, Toys R Us headquarters instructed its stores to mount various kinds of promotions. These used to be accomplished in a haphazard way, very much on the whim of the store manager involved – even though of course people could easily communicate by either phone or email. Often the people who could help most in a specific promotion did not contribute because they did not know about the promotion. The adoption of the use of public folders has ended this inefficiency: Now every worker is in the loop.
Original Goals Met
The originals goals of the company in adopting the new computer information systems – better internal communication leading to greater efficiency and higher profits – were indeed met.
The adoption of public folders has substantially streamlined the development of business initiatives and has helped to create a technology that allows any problems in the company to be explored more fully and freely. (Although, of course, no technology will convince employees to be perfectly honest about their bosses). Information that employees and executives need now exists in a centralized place and – because information is now written instead of oral – it is less likely to be lost.
Initiatives are sent to a public folder for that department so the entire group can share information and work on the initiative together. If someone needs information quickly, its available electronically in the public folder. People at the national offices can also look at the status of these issues.
The new technologies have allowed for new organizational structures to develop (which will in turn, one assumes, allow for new technologies to be introduced in an endless, iterative cycle). The new software has proven to encourage employees to join in and to feel more enfranchised in their jobs – something that is often difficult to achieve in retail, where most employees are not well paid and occupy transient positions. The new technology has had the effect, overall, of making even part-time, minimum-wage workers feel that they do have something important to contribute to the company’s overall success. Thus the company is using these new technologies to help implement an organizational approach that is essentially team-oriented.
People have of course always worked in teams – from the first moment when one of our ancient forebears wanted to life a rock that was too heavy for him to pick up alone groups began to be formed to accomplish collectively what no one individual could ever do by himself or herself. Like all primates, humans are social animals down the very core of our genetic code – so much so that people might be seen to have a biological compulsion to work with each other.
But all working groups are not equal. We are all familiar with the aphorism “A camel is a tiger designed by a committee” and we have all had many personal experiences in which working by oneself would have been far more efficient and efficacious than working with a particular group. Matching technology to social organization is essential in trying to ensure that people can work together when this is profitable and work alone when this will prove to be a better arena. Information technologies allow people to collaborate on their own time: Rather than having to drop everything that one is doing to go to a meeting that is at a convenient time for someone else, technology like public folders allows a worker to contribute when he or she is best able to do so.
Company executives made the right choice in selecting computer software that substantially improved internal communication, because this choice has had a ripple effect throughout the company.
Like many large companies, Toys R Us in the past several years found that its internal communications structure did not meet its needs. Too many good ideas got lost and too many employees were not able to contribute their best work. Poor managers might simply have blamed the workers for the mix-ups and slow-downs in communication. Alternatively, they might simply have selected a new computer information system very much at random and ended up with a system that did not in fact meet their needs.
By choosing a selection of Microsoft products, company officials avoided problems in integration (given that they were trying to improve communication, this was essential). They also established procedures that allowed for workers to change their routines to take advantage of the new technology. This is an essential aspect of any intelligent adoption of a new form of technology: New technology changes social structural patterns in the workplace, and so executives should never assume that the institution of a new form of technology is a single-step process.
Rather, new technology should be selectively adopted to meet current problems (and what problems may be predicted to arise in the future), and then as worker habits shift to take advantage of the new technology even newer (or at least different) technology must be adopted to take advantage of these new ways of working.
Offices of the 21st century are in many ways dominated by their computer systems. This means that any choice of a new system must be made as intelligently as possible. It also means that well-trained managers will work as hard as possible to ensure that computers remain tools to help workers reach the company’s overall goals – and not the masters of both workers and executives.
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