Great Ideas, Fast Growth, No Paper!

Visit a fast-paced company where employees submit expenses, establish lines of credit for customers, and conduct salary reviews online — and write their own software programs to do each task.

Computer Language Research Inc. (CLR) has never met a piece of paper it didn't want to eliminate. Its 1,100 employees submit their expense reports, complete purchase orders, reserve meeting rooms, and even conduct salary reviews — all online. Sales reps can use laptops to place orders and to establish lines of credit for new customers. (The latter process once took six months; it now takes one day.) Managers can even use an application written in Lotus Notes — and CLR has more than 3,000 Notes applications — to send flowers to an employee who's out sick.

Why is CLR so zealous about eliminating paper? Maybe because its business involves so much of the stuff. This fast-growing outfit, with annual revenues of $130 million, develops tax-compliance and accounting software; every year, it purees 25,000 government forms into bits and bytes for big companies, accounting firms, and bank trust departments.

John Ozols, 36, CLR's manager of network engineering, offers a different explanation for the company's aversion to paper. "It's all about speed," says Ozols, who estimates that 75% of the paper traffic that he used to handle has disappeared completely. "Paper moves too slow, it gets lost, and it's never up-to-date."

What's most striking about paper inside CLR is not how little of it there is but how little of it was eliminated by the company's IT staff. CLR is a place where anyone can be a hacker — as long as he or she is hacking away at paper.

It was a company auditor, not an IT staffer, who built an application to track CLR's Year 2000 Project. It was a quality-assurance team, not a software developer, that built a database to track recurring product problems. It was a secretary in the purchasing department, not some full-time computer wizard, who put the department's entire work flow online.

"Users know their domain best," says Jim Charles, 52, the company's CIO. "So we let the users develop software. I've had salespeople who developed new account-tracking applications. I had someone in our credit department who built a database that tracks write-offs."

Many of the CLR employees who write programs picked up the skill on their own. And why not? CLR is a genuinely techno-centric outfit whose patron saint — if the paraphernalia on display in most cubicles is any indication — is Dilbert, the hero of software programmers and programmer wanna-bes.

CLR also offers instructions to noncoders in its ultramodern Learning Center. The opportunity for non-IT people to learn code-writing skills and to put those skills into practice doesn't just result in lots of great software — it also becomes a great reason for people to stay at CLR.

"One reason I stay with this company is that I just love the opportunity to grow," says Donna Buck, 42, a former secretary who is now a senior systems engineer. After she developed a bunch of applications — including one that helps CLR track purchase requisitions — Buck became irresistible to the company's IT group, which offered her a full-time job. So she signed on to work there.

Bob Husted, 59, CLR's director of administrative services and Buck's former boss, says that her replacement has taken over where Buck left off — by developing a program that enables CLR employees to order business cards online. Husted figures that it won't be long until this rank-and-file coder also gets lured away to follow nerdier pursuits. "I guess that's the trend around here," he chuckles.

The company's digital devotion hasn't gone unnoticed. In 1997, PC Week placed Carrollton, Texas-based CLR on its list of 500 "Fast Track" adopters of innovative technology. Last February, the 34-year-old company, long considered an undervalued stock, was scooped up by Thomson Corp., an information-services giant based in Toronto, for $325 million — a 64% premium over CLR's stock-market price.

What works inside the company works outside the company too. At CLR, going digital isn't just an internal process: The company is taking paper out of its distribution chain as well.

Every year, for example, it ships to customers about 165,000 compact discs, many of which contain little more than updated or revised tax forms. Not only do the CDs cost CLR money; they also impose a burden on customers, who must load the new software onto their machines. That's why the company is moving product delivery to the Internet. It is testing an option called Remote Server, which lets customers complete tax returns via CLR's network — a technology that will also allow customers to work on returns from any location with Internet access, be it their office, their home, or a client site.

"Eventually we'll be phasing out the discs completely," says Fabian Gordon, 36, CLR's chief technology officer. He predicts that Remote Server will cut what was often a six-week process — most of which was spent mailing out CDs — down to a matter of days.

"When it comes to using technology, I guess we're a Type A company," says Charles. "We'll do anything to help save people time or to get products to market more quickly. For my taste, we can't move fast enough."

As he talks, Charles cheerfully demos some of his favorite new applications, like the one that details the performance of CLR's massive data center, or the one that tracks the progress of new products. One application even lets managers do online reviews of employee salaries, adjusting them upward when warranted. Can managers also do performance evaluations on that system? "Not yet," he frowns.

But he suspects that there's someone, somewhere, who might already have begun working on it. CLR's grassroots approach continues to yield applications that fill in gaps, eliminate paper, and make everyone's job easier. "Around here," says Charles, "every person is an IT person."

Scott Kirsner (kirsner@worldnet.att.net), a writer based in Boston, contributes frequently to Fast Company. You can visit Computer Language Research Inc. on the Web (www.clr.com).

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