Editor’s note: CharlotteBeat is a regular feature on Wednesdays.One never knows where, when or how lessons will be learned in life that are applicable to business. Such was the experience of Tony Clark, president and founder of EfficiencyLab.

Clark, who launched the business in 1997 to help firms renovate and adapt information systems in order to improve efficiency, recently returned from a humanitarian relief mission to Ecuador. He came home with a “whole new appreciation for how fortunate we are in America.” But in a more simple life in the South American country, he saw things to envy.

“I went to Mojanda, Ecuador as part of a humanitarian mission group,” he tells Local Tech Wire. “They were looking for volunteers to help out in the in the community clinic, school, and to provide construction help. I have a background in art and the organizers felt that an art class would go over well. It was received well beyond what I expected.”

Clark is an artist at heart. “I enjoy the creative freedom of art, and the variety of ways to approach a single piece,” he says. “I like most styles, and have worked in acrylics, inks, oils as well as metals and plastics.”

While he helped teach others, he learned as well. “The trip really touched me on a personal and spiritual level. Seeing the sense of community in the village, and the amazing people, had a great affect on me. The kids were extremely smart and talented. I taught K-6.

“It made me see how fortunate we are to be in such a great country, but also how our abundance often comes at the expense of community and sharing.”

Clark, who grew up as an “Army brat” and never went to college therefore teaching himself about all things computer, says he liked the way the villagers carried out commerce.

“One of the most interesting things was the way ‘business’ is conducted between villages. Each one specializes in a trade, such as hand woven ponchos, and uses that as their ‘currency’ in bartering,” he says. “If a girl or boy marries into a different village, they learn the new trade, and give up the family trade. This provides for a balance of supply and demand. It was really fascinating.”

Taking advantage of opportunity

The simple, balanced way of business there certainly contrasts with what happens at home, he points out.

“I think the U.S. is really efficient in some areas and very inefficient in others. So much of business is tied up in bureaucracy and inefficient ‘That’s the way it has always been done’ thinking. The great thing is that if a company is willing to make the necessary changes, the productivity really soars. We have a much better opportunity for this in America. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of it,” Clark explains.

Clark saw an opportunity to help squeeze out bureaucracy and old thinking when he started EfficiencyLab. But the path to the consulting business was not a straight one for the artist-turned-web guru.

“I started out in art and design. I’ve always had an interest in industrial design, and the combining of form and function. I did everything from airbrushing surfboards and bike tanks, to jewelry design and fabrication. The work eventually turned towards web design,” he recalls. “While working on web design projects I saw how inefficient companies’ information systems and processes were.

“Everything was focused on technology or haphazard processes, without taking into account the way people worked and relied on the information. I began to see that by applying the principles of psychology, sociology, and good design – along with technology – systems and processes could be made more efficient and allow people to be more productive. I took this holistic approach and related all the principles I had developed over the years into what became my information efficiency framework. This framework became the basis of what we do at EfficiencyLab.”

With his company seven years old, up to five people, and self-funded, Clark practices what he preaches. Asked to explain his secrets for success, he replies:

“A real focus on people and an true interest in the way they work. I love stories, and hearing a customer’s story, provides important pointers to what their needs are. Technology is wonderful, but not the end-all-be-all. You have to really be looking for what is best for the customer, and not just pay lip service to ‘customer experience.’ If you’re willing to really listen, people will tell you what the problems are. And if you communicate well, actively listen, they’ll help provide the solution. Then you use your expertise to elaborate and implement the solution. Simplicity is key.”

Customized solutions

The firm handles anywhere from five to 10 projects a year for mid-market to large firms. Each project requires individual attention, not a collective one-fits-all solution, he stresses.

“The key is taking a real interest in how people work, not just faking it. Instead of coming in with a product to sell or solution already in mind, we spend a great deal of time learning about clients and potential clients, to really learn their ‘story.’ One of the problems I see is that past information ‘solutions’ that companies often have in place were sold to them, not made for them. No one took the time to see how the organization uses information or what they really needed to be productive.

After reading background information about Clark and the firm, we asked him how he combined simplicity and efficiency to produce a more productive client.

“We look at how an organization uses information, and how information flows through the company and out to customers, vendors, partners,” Clark says. “We spend a good deal of time analyzing the missing elements, those things that make the information systems and processes difficult to use and less effective. We call the disparity between how the people in the organization need the information systems and process, and how they currently exist, Efficiency Gaps. We apply basic psychology and other work style elements with our own expertise in technology, usability, and design to make those systems and processes more efficient and easy to use.

Clark also works with companies to avoid reaching what he calls a “productivity plateau”.

“We have repeatedly proven that if a system or process is designed for the people using it – made to work intuitively – the productivity of the ones using it continually increases. Of course over time the increase is smaller, but it does continue to rise,” Clark explains. “If a system is built first, particularly without user involvement, even when trained they will only become so productive, no matter how much they use it. This is the productivity plateau. Without that intuitive nature and people-focused design, no amount of training is going to overcome that plateau.”

To assist his company’s efforts, Clark developed a process for processing information that involves clients and their customers.

“The concept behind the process is similar to our information efficiency analysis. We work with clients to determine what valuable knowledge could be buried in the mounds of data most organization have dispersed through the company. We use an interview process to gather what knowledge would be beneficial to the company — in revenue, research, analysis, resource drains, etc.,” Clark says. “We also look at it from the point of view of their customers, what is a real value to them? We then develop custom tools and reporting processes that collect and analyze the information from the disparaging data systems.

“Though it is similar to data mining, the process to a front to back approach. Meaning, we always start from the people perspective. It’s not about writing algorithms that are cool to programmers, but don’t really provide any real business value.

“If you need to know how much your losing on each widget sold in Rhode Island, and you need to make a decision on what to do, you need more than useless raw data. If Marge has a spreadsheet with some info she keeps for her own sanity check, your latest and greatest ERP has some numbers, and accounting has historical data, we can turn it all into a tool to help make decisions. A black and write report that says ‘yea or nay’ on Rhode Island widgets.”

Self-taught, still learning

Part of Clark’s success is built on his own thirst for knowledge. Clark, who is 33, married and has daughters ages 4 and 6 with another baby on the way, enrolled at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale to study industrial design but found a job.

“When the company took off and I had the chance to go out on my own, I left school and started my own art and design company. I never looked back,” he recalls. “I studied English, history, psychology, quantum theory, and computer science on my own. All I learned in programming, information design, human factors, and system architecture is self-taught. Once I started running a company, I never had time to return to school, so I taught myself what I needed to know in the different aspects of the business and technology. And I figured it worked for (Bill) Gates and (Steve) Jobs, among others, so I was in good company.”

In his spare time, he reads, cooks, and recently started kayaking. “I love it so far,” Clark says.

Sounds like a complicated, busy life — father, CEO, avid learner, artist and now a sportsman. So we had to ask him about his favorite quote about simplicity and efficiency.

“I have three,” Clark says.

“Albert Einstein – Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.

“Confucius – Life is really simple, but men insist on making it complicated.

“Peter Drucker – Efficiency is doing better what is already being done.”

For more information about EfficiencyLab, see: www.efficiencylab.com