Back to Basics?

I was talking with a colleague yesterday, and he made a statement that I found new and interesting.  He said that many of our professions (banking to name one) have shifted focus to the point where practitioners are focused (and trained) more in sales than in the basics of their profession (underwriting to name one).

I’d never thought of it like that before, but what he said makes sense.  Having spent a fair amount of time in banking during the emergence of technology, I saw many of the jobs that had been accomplished by a person, become automated.  Consumer lending is a good example.  In the past a banker used knowledge and skill to make a lending decision.  Today the banker collects the personal and financial information from the potential customer, and feeds it into an algorithm which decides whether or not the potential customer will get the loan.  The decision making is simplified, leaving the organization to focus on finding customers.  The banker could conceivably get away without really understanding the basics of the underwriting standards, if he/she is a good sales person.

I saw this also in retail, where buyers used to make decisions based upon their own cultivated knowledge of the customer, but as technology emerged, the decision making gave way to another algorithm.  Buyers became somewhat superfluous, particularly at the local level.

And don’t get me started on our educational system, where young people are no longer taught cursive writing because technology makes that skill obsolete (or so I’m told).  Or they cannot calculate a long division problem without a calculator or computer.

Mind you, I have no beef with technology – I am a self-professed geek.  In the world of business, technology equals business intelligence – something no one can afford to be without in today’s market.

But skimming the surface of the world of business without focusing on some of the very basic tenets that have proven true seems very foolish to me.

As an executive with responsibility for selecting vendors, I have been overrun with cold, warm and hot calls telling me all of the things a product can do for me.  Quite frankly, the sales people are VERY good at what they do; it is easy to get excited about being able to have concise, simple dashboards of performance metrics on your computer as you boot it up each morning.  Ah, but the devil is in the details….the basics of what you are trying to accomplish.   Are the performance metrics already in place?  Have they been validated as to actually improving performance?  Are the numbers credible?  How many internal systems need to feed the dashboards, and do they have compatible data?  If the data from the feeding systems is not compatible, what downstream processes must change in order for the data to feed properly?  How long will it take and how much will it cost to accomplish this?  The answer to that question could grow your expense exponentially.  Or not, but shouldn’t you know?

Years ago when we bought our first personal computer (okay, yes, before Windows…oy vey) I learned MS-DOS.  While I was never a whiz, I knew enough to understand how a computer stores and retrieves information.   As new technology came about, I could function easily because I knew the basics, and if something went awry, I could usually diagnose and fix.  Others knew how to point and click, but would lose files because they didn’t understand the basics.

So what is my point?  This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about looking for the easy way out.  I ranted about why I dislike business books in February, concluding that as easy as the solution sounds in a book, it just is never that easy.  Same with skimming the surface of the research, knowledge, history and experience that arrived at the simple solution proffered in the book, or by the vendor.   It just is never that easy.

What to do?  I think that it is time we went back to basics.  Organizations are people intensive, and there is nothing done in an organization that doesn’t require people.  Even automated processes and robotic systems require human brain power to make them effective.    How do you go back to basics in a world that is so complicated that it is almost overwhelming?

My thoughts…

  • Ask good questions.  Ask your employees if the process is working as well as it could.  I would be willing to bet they have answers.  So often, leaders feel that they have to have the answers, but truly all they need is good questions.
  • Listen.   Open your mind to what others are saying.  Get rid of the filters through which you hear.  The fact that you REALLY want the technology system that the vendor is selling is a filter that dissuades you from asking good questions.  When you ask the questions, listen with an open mind.
  • Learn. Research today is both easy and hard.  It is easy because there is so much data.  It is hard because there is so much data.   Look for fundamental data in several places, and then give yourself the gift of time to reflect on what you learned, and on the various perspective you sought out.  You cannot afford not to take time to reflect.
  • Plan and evaluate.  Use what you learned to make a plan with solid goals and time-frames.  Put the plan into place.  Review it with rigor and discipline to see if it is working.  Tweak as necessary.

Perhaps I am being naive, but I think it all boils down to this.  It has been, and continues to be my premise that the answer to the most troubling and critical questions reside with the people of the organization, not in a book, or a vendor or a consultant.  Going back to basics means letting go of the concept of “easy” and get to the real work of organizations – communication, collaboration, innovation, action and evaluation.

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