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People power still the key

MANAGERS are being warned that unless they embrace the computer, e-commerce, knowledge management and the Internet they risk being overwhelmed by those who do.

The proliferation of tertiary courses in these topic areas emphasizes the intrusion of IT into our organisational as well as our personal lives. We have become technophiliacs.

There is no doubt that managers have to be, or become, skilled in these new-age tools and techniques and I do not argue against this. My concern is that the love affair with managerial technology, and with the computer and IT in particular, will blind managers to the need to continue managing the most important variable in organisational performance - people.

In my experience with national and international organisations, especially SMEs, their managers have been consistently remiss in their HRM practices and technophilia could make the situation worse.

It is relatively easy to spend time and money on upgrading technology and introducing new information systems. You are dealing with tangibles that are objective, measurable and universally admired and recommended as the “snake oil” that will produce what all managers want. That is, the ability to gather, analyse, synthesise and disseminate masses of information relative to researching, producing, marketing and administering products and services in an efficient manner.

But, this equation, as attractive as it is, fails to recognize the importance of staff to the IT process. Tools and techniques are only as good as the people using them. Unless the people are skilled and motivated then the common IT syndromes can arise:

Garbage in garbage out, or,

Garbage in gospel out, or,

Gospel in garbage out.

Computers have solved the problem of handling vast amounts of data quickly and efficiently. However, to equate information processing with thinking is to flatten the hierarchy of the mind until people can’t tell the difference between the telephone directory and the works of Shakespeare.

We need to be reminded that the human beings who came before machines are far more remarkable pieces of work than the tools they may occasionally invent. Despite the fact that I hear time and again the phrase “our most important asset is our people” the cliché does not always translate into practice.

Considering that it is people who largely determine the fate of an enterprise, this is an interesting paradox. It is not that managers do not recruit, select, induct, train, compensate and motivate people - they all do because there is no choice in regard to whether or not to do these things.

The only choice is whether the activities are planned or not. So what I am saying is not that enterprises do not have a HRM function, but that they do not usually plan it well.

* Dr Roger Smith is from the Graduate School of Management

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