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Always-On People

A big part of running a real-time enterprise will be managing relationships.

Whatever Next?

The software industry is not leaving companies much time to digest CRM before coming up with the next thing. One is partner relationship management, or PRM, which in essence is CRM for dealers or distributors. More interesting is employee relationship management, or ERM, pioneered by Extensity. The basic idea is to digitise and streamline the “life cycle” of employees—how they are hired, trained, managed and retained.

Because it does away with tedious tasks, this kind of software has so far proved quite popular with employees. It allows them, for instance, to file their expense reports online and be reimbursed within days. But they are unlikely to be enthusiastic about the latest feature, which involves posting and tracking personal objectives. Siebel now offers this as part of its ERM suite and is using it itself. On the first day of every quarter Tom Siebel, the firm’s founder and chief executive, posts all his objectives for the next three months, for all to see. The following week all the senior managers do the same. Within two weeks all employees follow suit.

Some trade-union representatives wonder when firms will start implanting chips in their employees to track their every step. It seems only a matter of time until the technology will be available. WhereNet already offers a personal tracking device the size of a wristwatch. And several start-ups have said they are working on a prototype of an implantable chip that contains a miniature global-positioning-system (GPS) receiver and can broadcast its position.

Other than people in danger of being kidnapped, such devices seem unlikely to find many takers. And there may be no need anyway. Even without them, people are becoming more and more trackable already. For example, they use online offerings that indicate their whereabouts, such as instant messaging. Several firms now offer services that can identify a web surfer’s location. And wireless devices are getting smart enough to know where they are. Microsoft even wants to launch a web service called myLocation, which will provide information on where people are.

Tracking people may interfere with their privacy, but it has economic attractions. For instance, it could allow much better use to be made of service technicians, by combining information on where they are with other data, such as their skills and the spare parts in their truck, to decide where to send them next. Software doing just that, developed by researchers at IBM’s Watson Research Centre, can reduce the time the firm’s technicians spend to repair a broken computer by a factor of five.

Nor will it be only technicians who will have their next service call and even their lunch break scheduled by an optimisation algorithm. Now that we have real-time information from a lot of sources, we can use it continuously to improve all kinds of economic activity, explains Baruch Schieber, senior manager of IBM’s new “Optimisation Centre”. To him, a prime candidate is the service industry, where productivity has always lagged behind that of other sectors. But first the algorithms that he and others are developing are being put to use somewhere else: in supply-chain management.

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