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Staying Current on Technology Issues (Even if They Change Every 30 Seconds)

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Keeping up with the latest in technology is necessary for many CEOs. But with the variety of sources and the speed of technological change, how do you know where to start? You don’t need to know it all — just enough to manage the people who do.

OVERVIEW [top]

Have you ever been in a business meeting and found yourself frantically trying to remember the difference between "WAP" and "ASP?" While you are not the only one to get lost in all the technology jargon, you, as a CEO, should be acquainted with the latest innovations — especially if they can enhance your business performance. But with technology headlines changing as frequently as the Dow, how do you stay in the know?

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • How to learn what you need to know to manage technology issues with your tech team and with vendors.
  • You don’t need to know everything.

SOLUTION [top]

You need to know about technology issues that present problems and opportunities important to your business. But you do not need to know the detailed business-technology news. If you try to learn as much about your company’s technology as your tech specialists, you’re wasting valuable management time. You just need enough perspective on available options and specialized vocabulary to make good management decisions related to useful technology and to communicate those decisions.

Guidelines:

  • Let your tech manager know that she or he is responsible for telling you what you need to know about business opportunities and potential problems presented by technology. Make that manager a participant in your business-planning sessions to provide the necessary two-way perspective.
  • Make the same person responsible for tutoring you to the extent necessary for clear communication before any meeting to discuss technology issues and options. We learn best when what’s being taught has immediate application.
  • NEVER let a marketing rep sell a system to you instead of to the workers, who will have to use it, and the tech manager, who knows about competing systems and will be responsible for installing it.
  • NEVER let your tech manager and a vendor sell you on a system until you know:
    • Benefits and costs, including training, documentation, hardware, software, and personnel time for learning, implementing, and integrating the new system with the other systems already in use.
    • Benefits and costs of staying with the old system.
    • How many other companies have made the proposed change, and how happy they are with it — especially companies your size and in your industry.

Remember:

  • Never depend on one source for your information. You could be misled by a writer or editor’s biased point of view — especially on product quality — and you may miss out on some developments.
  • Check your sources. Is the vice president of a telephone company singing the praises of DSL over cable Internet connections when his company actually only provides DSL connections? Get a nonpartisan opinion.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

As a technology futurist, Tod Maffin speaks on the future of the digital economy; publishes a twice-monthly newsletter about emerging trends in business, technology and media; and hosts a national radio show focusing on technology issues. He is also co-founder of MindfulEye.com Systems Inc., an artificial intelligence developer. Understandably, keeping current on technology matters is vital for Maffin.

Maffin acknowledges that the Internet is the best source for instant news updates. There are many quality Web sites from which to get your technology news; however, each has its strengths and weaknesses, and there is no one definitive source. Surfing through a selection of Web sites can be time consuming and, like most executives, Maffin’s calendar is overflowing with meetings, interviews and the like. Finding time to read up on the latest technology can prove difficult.

Maffin enlists technology to help him with his research. "I use a now-defunct program called Tierra Highlights, which highlights Web pages that have changed and the changed content on each page." These notifier utilities allow you to quickly focus on recent developments reported on your pre-determined Web sites. While Tierra Highlights is no longer in production, it and similar products are available in the marketplace. They may even be bundled in your Web browser already.

His research is not all Web-based. "I also subscribe to Internet Week and usually find it easier to stay up-to-date this way — in spare time on flights, in taxis en route to meetings, and so on— than online," adds Maffin. Lengthier magazine articles may also provide more in-depth information about a product or the manufacturer, which may give you more insight about the validity and staying power of the technology.

If you are dependent on external consultants’ technology recommendations for your company, Maffin advises you to form a good working relationship with an impartial technology expert in your community. He or she may not be an executive, simply someone who has a deep understanding of what technology is available, individual manufacturers’ reputations, and what questions to ask when considering products. "Perhaps put them on your advisory board and then use them as a second opinion or devil’s advocate."

DO IT [top]

  1. If no manager is responsible for coordinating your information technology, appoint one.
  2. Find and use the best in-house tutor available for each of the tools you need to do your job, e.g., spreadsheets, word processors, e-mail, PDAs. You’ll be more efficient, and each system you learn to use will provide perspective useful for new systems to come. If an in-house tutor is impractical, arrange outside training for you and any employees who need it.
  3. Get in the habit of taking notes on important details, both as you read and at meetings. The process will help you remember the details, and the notes can be filed for reference.
  4. Get in the habit of stopping the discussion for clarification whenever acronyms and jargon prevent communication. Similarly, when you’re reading something important to your business, look up definitions of whatever unclear jargon could add significant understanding.
  5. Purchase some guides to technology for the nontech management staff. The books listed in the Resources section of this Quick-Read would be a good start. Get guides for your application software too.
  6. Have your tech team provide links to the Web pages of your system vendors on your Intranet for easy access to answers to frequently asked questions.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

These books provide the perspective a nontech manager needs to understand technical systems and communicate with tech workers.

Random House Webster’s Computer & Internet Dictionary, 3rd edition, edited by Philip E. Margolis (Random House, 1999).

Thomas’ Concise Telecom and Networking Dictionary , by Thomas M. Thomas II (McGraw-Hill, 2000).

Holy Grail of Data Storage Management, by Jon William Toigo (Prentice Hall PTR, 2000). A primer on storage hardware technology.

Interactive Data Warehousing, by Harry Singh (Prentice Hall PTR, 1999). A primer on database architecture.

The E-Commerce Question and Answer Book: A Survival Guide for Business Managers, by Anita Rosen (AMACOM, 2000).

Telecom Made Easy: Money-Saving, Profit-Building Solutions for Home Businesses, Telecommuters and Small Organizations, 4th edition, by June Langhoff (Aegis, 2000).

Internet Sites

c|net. Business technology news and product reviews.

ZDNet. More technical business technology news from a c|net subsidiary.

MagPortal. Magazine articles on organizing and integrating technology systems.

Techopedia. IT Dictionary for computer terms and tech definitions.

TheStandard.com. Stay current with the ever-changing Internet world.

Here are two Web sites useful enough for quick look-ups that you may want to bookmark them or get them listed on your Intranet:

Whatis.com. An online encyclopedic dictionary of Information Technology.

Free On-Line Dictionary of Computing

Article Contributors

Writer: Richard Blue and Tracy MacNicoll

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