Finding information black holes in every small business

* Moving to an information sharing philosophy can be tough

Every small company I've seen has at least one black hole of information. In my father's photo equipment manufacturing company, where I spent three painful years, those black holes were named Shirley, Sandra and Margie. Yes, the office manager and her cohorts caused more information damage than any network problem.

For more details on Shirley, Sandra, Margie, and other business issues, come see the new Network World Technology Tour and Expo "IT Strategies for Small to Mid-Sized Business: A Practical Blueprint for Smart Growth" (http://www.networkworld.com/events/smb05/index.html). I will be visiting Chicago (July, 12), Seattle (July 14), New York (July 19) and Houston (July 21). The event is full of ideas to help trick technology into working for you instead of against you.

Why do office managers cause such grief? They control access to information and share that information sparingly. Their motives, to protect the owner from interruptions and guard important data such as accounting details, start pure but warp over time to become black holes that absorb data and rarely let it out (and distort the information that does escape). Small businesses (and departments in larger businesses) must modify this behavior in order to grow and not frustrate other employees.

First, immediately check computer systems for proper back-up settings. All too often, black holes keep "sensitive" information separate and hidden. Payroll information, sales data and other financial details may be hiding on their hard disks, never backed up because of "security issues" with the back-up system. That really means they don't trust the IT person not to read the information. Since the office manager usually handles the IT chores until the company grows past about 20 people, these folks set up the first back-up system and know how to hide data from the back-up software in use today.

Second, classify which information can be safely shared, even if it includes accounting data. For instance, the sales people don't necessarily need to know account balances for their customers, but they do need to know if a customer becomes a financial risk. Sales people are practical about such issues and won't waste time selling to a customer who's future business has been blocked by a Shirley, Sandra or Margie.

Modern accounting software includes reports of companies past due or suspended. Publishing that list helps everyone dealing with those companies without revealing specific financial details that could be embarrassing to either party. Modern sales software can do the same thing by flagging accounts based on a variety of criteria.

If you're the boss being protected, escape your cage now and then. Do that "walking manager" trick often enough that employees or co-workers feel comfortable talking to you. In extreme cases, the Shirley cabal will intimidate employees to the point they're afraid to interrupt the boss even when the boss asks to be interrupted. E-mail and group connection software tools will help relieve the isolation, but talking in person or by phone will help this type of restricted information problem even more. Don't ask if the people feel shut out because they won't admit it. Do ask if they're getting all the info they need, and what else you can do to make them more productive and efficient.

Finally, help the Shirley's of the world see that protecting you and the company doesn't mean blocking out others. Shirley wants your trust and gives loyalty in return. Just make sure she knows that her loyalty must go to the company first and you second.

Don't think the problem belongs to one gender. The most secretive office manager I've ever worked with had a mustache on his lip and Ray on his nametag. It could be the boss wanted all employees left in the dark about virtually everything, but I doubt it. If you're that type of boss, or allow information black holes, be prepared for employees, especially technical specialists and sales people, to get frustrated and leave. I did.

P.S.: Thanks for asking, Celeste. My 16th book, "Talk Is Cheap," will be out in early July. See the table of contents and more at http://www.gaskin.com/talk/

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