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Anthropologists in IT: The ROI

May 29, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Studies showing the return on investment that anthropologists bring to IT are hard to come by -- if they exist at all, but Jim Euchner has some figures that proved the value to him.

As vice president of process improvement at Nynex in the early 1990s, Euchner oversaw the deployment of a system designed to diagnose problems with phone lines. To his surprise, workers in the 42 maintenance centers equipped with the new Maintenance Administration Expert (MAX) used it differently from site to site. Some managers loved it, while others hated it, saying it made their work harder.

Euchner was confused by the differences and, at the urging of another manager, hired anthropologist Patricia Sachs to figure out what had gone wrong and help fix it.

With her assistance, he discovered that there were problems with the way people perceived the system, the way management perceived the work and the way people were measured. "But with Pat's help, we were able to tweak the system to make it work differently for different people, so in the end everyone used it," he says.

Euchner estimated that it cost Nynex about $1 million to develop and deploy MAX, which helped the company save $4 million to $6 million annually. Euchner points out that a healthy chunk of those savings would have been lost if MAX hadn't been used in all 42 maintenance centers.

Convinced that Sachs' insight as an anthropologist could have a significant and tangible impact, Euchner used her services once again in the mid-1990s. At that time, Nynex was losing market share to competitors that were able to provide high-speed data lines much more quickly than it could. Nynex officials wanted to know the reason for the lag.

Sachs led a team of Nynex workers charged with finding some answers. They learned that orders for high-speed lines took weeks to fill because they passed through multiple workers and systems. Sachs worked with Nynex employees to redesign the flow using existing technology.

As a result, Nynex cut the cycle time for orders from 30 days to just three, Euchner says. The company gained market share and cut the costs of filling an order in half.

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