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Originally published 1997

The Dirty Little Secret

By Bill Barnes, PCCC

I am getting into the market segment of business owners who buy a computer in a box from a retail store and expect magic. Here's an investment of $1,500 that came complete with "$2,500 worth of software," including a fistful of games, some utilities, three on-line services (software only, no access), Quicken, and a "works" package or maybe even a full-fledged office suite. And a color printer, too. Drop it on someone's desk and watch the magic.

When I encounter this, I have my speil that I have to give to the owner: "Before we proceed further, you need to be aware of the 'ugly little secret' of automating your office: The cost of the equipment is only a minor part of the cost of using a computer. Customizing programs to your business and training personnel represent many times your equipment cost. This means it will take longer to get a return on your investment and procedures will actually be less efficient for a period of time. You must be patient and believe that the payback will come; if not in raw productivity, in increased knowledge and control over your business."

Sometimes their employees aren't even computer literate. More often, someone is competent enough to write letters or even proficient enough to create a logo and letterhead with the word processor's drawing tools. And then they run out of procedures. They have not considered what data they're going to keep on the computer. They don't know what program or format they're going to use to organize their data. They don't know that they need to plan their data structures, both in the file and on disc.

So I go in and organize their system. First I do the housekeeping of creating data folders, cleaning up the root directory, and deleting unwanted shortcuts from the desktop and Start menu. Then I spend a half-hour or more on the phone and fax registering their software so they won't get the nag every five uses. If necessary, I configure their network and online services. Now comes the job of making their computer productive.

I set up templates for their most common tasks so they're not inadvertedly overwriting a letter when they create a new one. I encourage them to take advantage of the resources they have such as not trying to track expenses in a word processor when they have a spreadsheet available. I also tell them to ignore the database module unless they are versed in theory and programming. There's usually also a significant amount of time explaining data organization and what to put on a floppy and when and what to backup.

Finally we get into what the boss thought was going to happen 10 minutes after he plugged in the system. I start converting their pencil-and-paper bookkeeping system to electronic. Or maybe they wanted a client-tracking or image-archive system which involves a significant additional software purchase and more training.

Before it's all over, they owe me more than they paid Best Buy or Circuit City and get the feeling they were cheated somewhere along the way. The only thing out of order is that they didn't read behind the ads. When a big business buys PCs, their IT department has already established the procedures and decided what software they will use to perform which tasks. They buy a truckload of identical computers, tested and preconfigured for their needs. They create a disc image of company-standard applications and shortcuts. When they land on the desktop, the user sees only the two applications he needs for his job and can only save data to the appropriate network drive.

Unless they're very lucky, every organization ends up buying expensive software packages and putting them on the shelf because they weren't appropriate to their needs before they find the right productivity piece. It's just a lot easier emotionally to test $5,000 worth of programs when your eventual purchase will be $150,000 than it is to throw out $250 of a $2,000 budget.


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