Workflow: Davis Controls Gets Its Business to Flow

By Mel Duvall Print this article Print

How do you get workers to use a new software application? Try cutting off their e-mail. The CEO of this Canadian manufacturer says it worked for him.

Neil Montgomery tried all the usual methods to convince his employees to use new software designed to automate business processes such as capturing customer account information and processing orders, as well as simpler tasks like approving vacation requests.

The chief executive of Davis Controls, an Oakville, Ontario-based manufacturer of process-control instrumentation and factory-automation devices, made sure his employees were trained in how to use the applications from Exact Software. He tried to cajole them into using the package by pointing out its benefits, such as complete visibility into every customer account. When he met continued resistance, he mandated that employees must use the software, not e-mail, to complete the business processes it was designed to streamline.

But when about a half-dozen of his 50 employees continued to use e-mail to circumvent the software, he'd had enough. Montgomery shut down their e-mail accounts.

And when two of his employees, including his chief technology officer, continued to resist, he says he suggested it was time they part ways.

Montgomery's view on the subject was black and white: If an interaction between customers, or employees for that matter, wasn't important enough to include in a workflow process, it wasn't pertinent to the business.

"I had people banging on my door saying it was like having Big Brother watching everything you do," Montgomery recalls. "But I was clear. I told them, 'You can fight me on this—but I'm going to win.'"

Getting employees to properly use workflow features packed into enterprise applications is a struggle many organizations face. Workflow is essentially a way of describing a business process that has been automated by software, such as processing expense reports, ordering office supplies, routing customer orders or inquiries, or tracking sales. Steps involved in completing the task, or business process, have been built into the software; documents or forms associated with the task are automatically routed to the users responsible for processing or approval. Triggers and checks may also be built into the software, such as alerting a sales manager if an order has not been shipped.

Workflow applications can eliminate paper shuffling. Just as important, they can ensure that customer inquiries or sales opportunities aren't forgotten, especially when an employee leaves a company. However, old habits die hard, and it can be difficult to get employees to fully adopt new methods of working. At worst, employees may resist using new systems, such as applications that capture all information related to customer accounts, for fear of losing control.

In 2001, Davis Controls invested about $300,000 in a suite of applications from Exact Software, a Netherlands-based company with 2005 revenue of $290 million. That suite includes back-office applications, including finance and accounting, and front-office applications, including customer relationship management and human resources, for small to medium-sized businesses.

That investment came as the manufacturing landscape was—and is still—undergoing rapid change. With many of Davis' customers turning to cheaper imports from China and Asia, or moving their entire operations offshore, Montgomery knew the company had to get more efficient to survive. He could relieve some of that pressure by turning to cheaper imports himself, but the long-term key to survival was in getting more productivity out of his employees.

The software was a key plank in that strategy, but it would work only if he could get employees to use its workflow features properly.

By capturing all customer information, for example, Davis employees would be able to more efficiently track and serve their clients. If a client recently purchased a new boiler control, and mentioned that in six months it would be in the market to purchase instrumentation to monitor its boilers remotely, that information could be captured instead of residing in someone's head or e-mail account.

"If I send you an e-mail, and you e-mail me back, that information remains private, but there could be information there that is vital to understanding a customer account," Montgomery explains.

In some respects, the results seem to speak for themselves. Since the software became fully operational in 2001, the company's yearly revenue has grown from almost $12 million to just over $15 million in 2005. But the head count has remained static at about 50 employees. (See "Growth Without Growth," p. 70.) Montgomery has been able to reduce his administrative staff from nine in 2000 to three, and redeployed those resources to sales.

This article was originally published on 2006-06-12
Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.

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