By Tim Haight
Ah, the arrogance of somebody like me, safely ensconced in the cheap seats, presuming to tell Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, or his new advisor, Bill Gates, how to do anything, much less run their huge company. But people do that, don’t they? Watching business news is like going to a movie. You identify with the protagonist, and then you’re giving advice. So here goes.
If I were Satya Nadella, I’d take over as CEO the way Paul O’Neill did at Alcoa in 1987. Alcoa was sort of drifting, and O’Neill came in to put a stake in the ground. What was his recipe for success, the number against which managers would be judged? It was time lost to employee injuries. When he revealed this orientation, everybody thought he was nuts.
Over the next 13 years, however, O’Neill grew Alcoa’s market capitalization from $2.9 billion in 1986 to $29.9 billion in 2001. He also, by the way, took Alcoa’s time lost to injuries from one-third the U.S. average to less than one-twentieth. The legend is that he transformed Alcoa’s culture, and got people throughout the company to take initiative, first around safety, but then around other things, including productivity.
The difference is that if I were Satya Nadella, I would present this measure: hours of customer employee productivity lost because of issues with Microsoft products. Microsoft should care about its customers’ productivity the way O’Neill’s Alcoa cared about its workers’ safety. Fanatically.
The relationship between the quality of IT support and employee productivity is actually a big deal. A study last year by MetricNet showed that companies in the highest quartile of IT support lost about 18 hours per employee, about $360 in payroll, in productive time. Companies in the lowest quartile of support lost about 46 hours of employee productive time per year, about $966 in payroll. I’m no economist, but the idea that the average employee is losing perhaps 32 hours a year because of IT issues says that fixing that could raise GDP.
Microsoft, of course, is not responsible for all of that, but some days I think that if I had a dollar for every minute I’ve spent wandering through Microsoft Office help and all the other billion types of Microsoft help, only to come up empty, I’d raise GDP all by myself.
OK, that’s exaggerated for emphasis. And it’s not just Microsoft. Help, and, more broadly, vendor technical support is the backwater of our hi-tech civilization. If we can make an automobile that can drive down U.S. 101 without a driver, why can’t we make an AI that can answer our tech support question? “Siri, how do I left justify the category labels in an Excel clustered bar chart? Siri? Siri?”
So I’m another frustrated user. Why should this matter to Microsoft’s new CEO? It’s because, on this dimension, I’m really typical. People have changed since a key strategy at Microsoft was to release products and fix them later. We don’t have time for that now. We have become intimate partners with our machines. We have become productive. Productive people are busy people. We want the quickest way to solve the problem we define, without having to learn absolutely anything else.
I don’t want to have to learn an application to solve a problem. Last week, I had a really good experience. I was in a teleconference, where I volunteered to add a couple questions to the survey the committee I was meeting with was designing. The chair sent me an email with a link to a Google Drive doc. That opened up a browser, where I could type in the questions, which then everybody else on the committee could access and work with. That was all there was to it.
I want it to be like that with everything, and if I don’t know how to do it, I want an app that will tell me how. With Moore’s Law somewhere beyond orbit by now, is it unreasonable to think that an AI could be designed to converse with me until the problem was defined, find free applications on the Internet that could fix it, test them, pick one, and then write me a set of directions about what to do?
And wouldn’t it be so much simpler to do that just with Microsoft products, taking that genuine wealth of knowledge that I’ve seen as I wander through in search of an answer and making it conveniently intelligible?
People would be so happy with real help and real ease of use that they’d stay loyal forever, paying those 92% margins on Microsoft licenses and everything, staying in the Microsoft environment. So please, Satya, if I may call you Satya, put that stake in the ground!