Balance technology & people: 7 ways

By Jeff Wuorio

Oil and water. Red and blue states. Technology and people?

The first two pairings represent a basic form of incompatibility that may seem irreconcilable to many.

The third duo, on the other hand, poses a quandary for many small businesses. The issue: how can you be sufficiently grounded in technology without diminishing the importance of people?

It's a delicate balance, but the two can happily coexist. Here are seven strategies:

1. Recognize that balance works for your business. Some businesses are naturally more tech-heavy—say, software consulting. Others, such as retail, put a premium on people skills and eye-to-eye customer service. Begin your balancing act by determining where your business falls along that continuum.

"Some businesses exist purely because of people," says Boston consultant Steven Robbins. "Others can treat people as interchangeable cogs. Businesses have differing dependencies on people and technology."

2. Find your balance & inform your employees. Striking a balance between people and technology also involves hiring the right kind of people to reflect that balance. You'll make your business run more efficiently while involving employees who will likely be satisfied with their roles. If, for instance, yours is more people centered with less emphasis on technology, that naturally suggests employees who value individual input, interaction and other personal aspects. Have a tech-heavy operation? Don't overlook folks "who love to come to work each day and do nothing more than write 50 lines of code," says Robbins.

3. Technology shouldn't exist just for technology's sake. However tech heavy you feel your business may be, it's critical to know just what your technology needs are and never going beyond them just because you can. Not only can that prove a substantial waste of money, you may alienate technically-challenged employees forced to learn something that's genuinely unnecessary. "Technology should be a means, not an end. When you incorporate technology into your business, it should be because it helps your employees do their work better and or faster," says Laurent Duperval, a Montreal-based consultant. "Be sure of the outcome you expect from the new technology—monitor it at specific milestones to make sure you are on the right track."

4. Follow up with training. Nothing can be more alienating to employees that being thrown headfirst into the technology pool with nary a hint of what to do next. Part of balancing technology with the human element of a business is committing resources so people can get the most out of new technical systems or products. And that means comprehensive, detailed training to make certain everyone is as comfortable as possible.

5. Technology and people aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Although certain businesses may lean more toward technology or emphasize personal skills, that's not to say there aren't ample opportunities for crossover. For instance, products such as Microsoft's Dynamics CRM help address the most personal of topics—customer information, buying preferences and other salient details. Likewise, Office Live Meeting leverages technology to maintain personal online contact with far-flung employees and clients. That sort of people/technology crossover is valuable to firms such as Blue Cover, a San Antonio offline design and print branding concern: "Often traveling to our clients' location is not feasible—we have to use Web conferencing for our meetings," says director of technology Jonathan Iannotti.

6. Recognize the value of technology. Few top-notch employees want to work in a Dickensian-like environment with grossly-outdated equipment and procedures. With that in mind, approach technology as an attractive workplace element, particularly for younger people who may place great emphasis on the latest technologies. Again, strike a balance for the operation you have and the people you want—a focus on technology for businesses who look to hire tech jocks, with a rather more simple, but no less current, technical environment where people skills and personal interaction are a greater priority.

7. Want to know if the balance is working? Ask. Don't assume that your perception of what's happening naturally translates to an ideal tech/people balance. To hedge your bet, ask your employees how they feel. Is technology a boon or a hindrance to their productivity and satisfaction? Notes Duperval: " Remember the 80/20 rule: if 80 % of your clients and employees are happy about the system, you're on the right track. If only 20 % are happy, you may have some tweaking or re-thinking to do."

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