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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 9 * May 7, 2001

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Real-Time Management

The phrase “real-time” is now a solid part of management folklore. It is an outgrowth of a high-tech world in which response time is measured in billionths of a second instead of the more comfortable and relaxed pace of hours, days or weeks. It is one of the “buzz words” that implies that an agency is not up-to-date or modern if it does not operate in real-time.

The idea is to deliver products or services on a schedule derived from “exceeding customer expectations” rather than dictated by the internal policies and past practices of the producer. We live in an increasingly real-time world where news is flashed into our homes the instant it is happening anywhere in the world.

We visit banks and shopping centers on the Internet without ever leaving our homes. We can bank online, socialize or date online, go to school from a distance. At work we can telecommute to the office without ever leaving our dining room.

These trends change citizen expectations and employee behavior. However, they result in special challenges to management — challenges for which elected and appointed officials as well as supervisors are often ill-prepared or not prepared at all to meet. With real-time service delivery comes the need for rapid response real time management.

Managers and supervisors must have the confidence, training and support to make decisions that will get the job done and minimize agency liability in the process.

Managing in a real-time environment is inconsistent with many of the traditions entrenched in a bureaucracy. The formal and rule-bound nature of many organizations causes attitudes and practices that focus on why things can’t be done and how this or that change violates rule number so and so.

In a traditional bureaucracy, information flows up and decision making flows down. There is, in other words, a tendency toward waiting for the “center” to make a decision before responses to problems in the field can be addressed or before innovations can be attempted.

Certainly it is a popular trend in organizations to speak of decentralizing, flattening the organization, empowering employees in the field, etc. However, without an organizational attitude adjustment that rewards rather than retards risk and innovation the phrases above will soon be found in an exhibit hall of the Management Museum of Folklore next to displays about zero-based budgeting, total-quality management and management by objectives.

Receiving an invitation to visit the grand opening of this exhibit would be very unfortunate because customers — including the customers of government service — will continue to demand its services exceed expectations and be available in a real-time environment. Government agencies will have no choice but to compete on this basis or to risk tax payer, voter and employee unrest.

The HR Doctor offers some links for managers to avoid becoming a tour guide at the Museum of Management Folklore. First, recognize that real-time management is full of wonderful potential and should dominate our thinking in the planning and implementation of service improvement. This should be embraced actively and enthusiastically at the top levels of government so the message, over time will echo in the halls of buildings and in the attitudes of employees and customers as well.

Second, develop a culture in which innovation is honored and expected, rather than relegated to a footnote in the report of an auditor, a footnote where actions are shown to be inconsistent with established rules. Recognition and appreciation should become the center pieces in a climate to develop extraordinary cutting edge service.

Third, expand the term “real time management” beyond its computer-based meaning. Equating 21st century management strictly with computer-based application is dangerous and wrong. Real-time management also means a genuine commitment to meeting people’s needs and expectations if not exceeding them. It means customer service excellence. It means attentive, sensitive problem solving by real human beings rather than automated attendant phone answering systems and impersonal robotic government responses. In short, real time management will always involve human interaction with caring people.

Finally, the most important link in successful real-time management involves the supervisor.

Greater demands than ever are placed on that person to be knowledgeable, experienced and nimble in making decisions. The supervisor must be elevated to a place in the organization where his or her skills are valued more than they have been in the past and his or her tool kit features the support and the help he or she will need to respond quickly and confidently with decisions.

Real-time management is inconsistent with geologic time decision-making. Responsibility and authority to resolve problems must be vested in the first and second line supervisor as well as in employees at the point where the service is delivered.

No matter how technologically advanced we may be, rule-bound decision-making of the 19th century model of bureaucracy will paralyze an organization’s efforts to improve service. The organization must provide its managers and supervisors with the ongoing training, authority and recognition to assume the leadership they must play in real time management.

The HR Doctor points out, in closing, that organizational paralysis is one very serious disability not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, like most management ills, it can be treated through pro-active management and commitment to work place innovation.

The HR Doctor wishes you all the best.



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