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3 Ways To Manage Underperforming Technology

Applying a people approach to technology could help boost performance. Here are three ideas for remediating the laggards.

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If you subscribe to the idea of managing technology like people, how do you handle mediocre--or downright poor--performance?

Douglas Brown, an academic program manager at Post University's MBA program who also directs their Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, is intrigued by the people approach to tech--read more about it here--but notes there can be a gap between theory and practice: "It's not a hard idea to grasp," he said in an interview. "It's a harder idea to follow through on."

That might be particularly true when dealing with underperforming technology, but it doesn't have to be. Here are three things you can do to boost performance:

Start the conversation early. "Usually, when something is going sideways [with an employee], there's a conversation early on," Brown said. "That conversation doesn't really happen with technology." Brown points out that, except in extreme situations, SMBs put more effort into helping people perform at a higher level because they've already invested significant time and money in that employee.

SMBs devote resources to technology, too--yet don't always do everything they can to optimize performance. That means that companies often spend even more money on replacements or upgrades without addressing root issues. If post-launch problem arise, don't wait to start the conversation on why--and what needs to be done to solve them.

"It may be that the technology is no longer right for your business," Brown said. "But if you don't have a sense of what is right, then you're just jumping from ring of the circus to another."

Hold quarterly reviews. Brown believes quarterly reviews (versus annual or semiannual) are a best practice for people performance. Likewise, consider a similar review process for technology. Granted, you'd look a little strange if you drag a server or a ream of source code into a conference room for a candid discussion each quarter. Rather, the review should involve the key stakeholders and subject matter experts who are--or should be--properly invested in the technology's success.

Develop a performance improvement plan. When an employee's execution doesn't meet expectations, smart organizations tend to develop what Brown calls a "performance improvement plan," which includes the critical things an employee must do within a specific timeframe--and what the company must do to assist them--in order to keep their job.

"The same discipline can be applied to technology when it's not working right," Brown said. As with performance reviews, technology improvement plans need to involve the right people in the company. Unless your company has HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey on its payroll, the plan won't do much good otherwise.

Still, sometimes technology--as with people--just isn't a fit for a particular role anymore. When that's the case, it's not simply a matter of pulling the plug. Here's what to keep in mind if you're thinking about "firing" technology.

Consider reassignment first. Budget-conscious SMBs should look for ways to repurpose existing technology investments before kicking them to the curb, according to Brown, in the same way that companies sometimes reassign employees who might be a better fit in a new role. He gave as one example older PCs: While an aging machine might no longer meet the performance needs of current applications, it could do just fine as a Web terminal for cloud applications.

Put it in writing. The decision to jettison technology should be a well-documented process--not unlike how the HR department kicks into paperwork mode when a company and worker part ways. Ensure you've got good, clear business reasons to get rid of technology. Likewise, documentation should answer fundamental questions like: What happens when we turn this thing off?

"No matter how much we think we know something, we don't really know what it is until we write it down," Brown said.

Line up a strong replacement. Occasionally, addition-by-subtraction bears true. But if your finance system stinks, you're not going to stop balancing your books as a result--you'll need a replacement. How confident are you in the upgrade? Brown advises SMBs to take a long look at alternatives before firing technology. Otherwise, you'll likely find yourself following the same steps toward termination with the replacement--and following an unsustainable spending cycle.

"We tend to do that much more with technology than with employees; we always assume the next technology is better and faster," Brown said. "It might be, but it might not be necessary for your business."

At the 2011 InformationWeek 500 Conference, C-level executives from leading global companies will gather to discuss how their organizations are turbo-charging business execution and growth--how their accelerated enterprises manage cash more effectively, invest more wisely, delight customers more consistently, manage risk more profitably. The conference will feature a range of keynote, panel, and workshop sessions. St. Regis Monarch Beach, Calif., Sept. 11-13. Find out more and register.

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