Let's talk business. (Micros in business) Dale Blanchard.
Long-time readers of this magazine have no doubt already noticed that this is a new column. Was it simply chance that directed the editors to add a business column to an already-thick magazine? Certainly not; a business column fits neatly into the overall fabric of what is going on with computers. Specifically, people are finding it hard to come up with intelligent uses for their home computers beyond games and simple bookkeeping and mailing list applications. Computers are mind tools, and the home is not traditionally a place of heavy thought. In fact, most of us who work use our homes as a place to escape from the pressures of the business.
I will elaborate on those ideas later, but first, since I will be doing this column every month, perhaps I should introduce myself. As you probably gathered from the name at the top of the column, my name is Dale Blanchard. I run a small business is Fremont, CA which is currently involved in two primary activities: computer consulting and producing computer software.
Roughly nine years ago I got involved with computers because I am a lousy typist. My partner, my wife, and I started a small business providing vocational counseling and consulting. My partner was a certified counselor, I had the business expertise and marketing contacts, and my wife was too smart to get sucked into being our secretary. "You've got to be kidding!" she said. "Once a secretary, always a secretary." She went on to become a psychotherapist and I ended up doing the typing. With luck I can type a short paragraph without any errors, which is not good enough to impress new customers. That led to a word processing system.
Later, more computers and programs were added, and I eventually had made enough mistakes that people began to think of me as an expert. I'm not, really. True, for most of you I am from out of town, but I don't have any slides to show. In spite of that I am writing a monthly column which has the goal of helping you through the perils of an increasingly confusing computer jungle.
Of course, that casts me in the role of your consultant. Since I believe that one of the first steps in choosing a consultant should be to find out about the consultant's beliefs and prejudices, let me tell you a few of mine: About Consultants
Most really aren't; most are salesmen in one disguise or another. That puts you in a very vulnerable position. Does it make sense to walk into a barber shop for an opinion as to whether you need a haircut? Does it make any more sense to ask a computer salesman if you need a computer? About Computers
I think most businesses try to get them to do too much, too soon. Too many people view them as solutions instead of tools to help arrive at solutions. From a sociological point of view, computers scare me--a lot. About Computer Hardware
There is some truly magic stuff out there, some of it tremendously valuable to businesses, some of it little more than expensive novelties. Hard disks have tremendous potential, but they scare me.
"Why?" a programmer friend asked me.
"Because they are too inconvenient to back up."
"I always back mine up," he answered.
"Yes, but you're a computer professional."
He got an enlightened look on his face and said, "I see what you mean. I know about computers, but those poor folks out there believe they work."
"Exactly," I replied. About Business Software
Some of it is very good; most of it is too hard to use; and too much of it was written by people who know very little about running a business. For the most part I don't think it is too expensive. Compared to games, it is expensive. Compared to not having it, it is very inexpensive. Some of the best costs very little; some of the worst is very expensive. You don't necessarily get perhaps what you pay for. About Computer Manuals
For the most part they are nearly incomprehensible. Usually, that is because they were written by the wrong people, computer engineers or computer programmers. People who use computers should write manuals. Or maybe they should be written by teachers. They should not be written by engineers. Engineers know too much, and they are interested in the wrong things. Bits and bytes don't matter. About Jargon
I abhor jargon--bits, bytes, kilobytes, megabytes, baud rates, screen refresh rates--computer literature is full of it. But we are not alone. I was looking through a copy of my wife's The American Journal Of Psychiatry and came across an article with this title: "Complex Partial Status Epilepticus Simulating Psychogenic Unresponsiveness.
My wife said, "That's very precise. In fact, I can't think of a shorter way to say it."
"But what does it mean?" I asked.
She smiled mysteriously and went back to work.
Nine years ago when we were starting our counseling business, several other people were also starting theirs. We used to get together and discuss problems, approaches, and the like. One of the problems we all faced was how to communicate what we were doing to insurance claims people. I held out for the proposition that we had a duty to convey clearly and precisely what we were doing--to translate out activities into language that anyone could understand.
One of my colleagues took the opposite position. "No," he said. "We are not talking about jargon. We are talking about industry-specific language. Those words exist because they precisely and accurately convey the concepts of our profession." He was at least partly correct.
I currently have a friend who thinks it makes no economic sense for the computer profession, or any other profession, to communicate clearly. "The way to make immense amounts of money is to invent a language and then charge exorbitant fees to translate it for people. Look at what lawyers and accountants have done."
I am still against jargon, but I do believe in the concept of industry-specific language. I also believe that if we in business are to survive without paying someone exorbitant fees to translate the language of the computer industry for us, we owe it to ourselves to learn that language. How else will we know when we are being told the truth?
Those are some of my prejudices. I will probably discover more as we go along, but for now I would like to lay a little more foundation for the direction of this column. Computerizing Your Business Within The Large Context
Above, I said that sociologically computers scare me. Let me tell you why. At the end of World War II I was a small child. My parents had a small 40-acre farm in Idaho. Most of our neighbors had similar farms. We are farmed with horses. When it came time to get the hay in, the men of the neighboring farms would form a large work party and move from farm to farm, first moving the hay, then raking it, then loading it on to wagons and hauling it to the yard and stacking it. I was a little kid and got to ride on the wagons.
By the time I graduated from high school farms were much larger, and I was driving a large self-propelled machine which mowed and raked the hay in one pass. I could handle a hundred acres by myself. That was technology 25 years ago.
In the background of all of this was my uncle. He had suffered brain damage as a child and was somewhat retarded. In the days of labor-intensive farming Uncle Francis could support himself almost as well as the rest of us, but if he were to try it in today's world, he wouldn't make it. That is one of the side-effects of technology.
At the time of the Civil War roughly 90% of our population was employed in agriculture, and I suspect we had no surpluses. Today, with the help of technology, less than 10% of our population is employed in agriculture, and we have huge surpluses. What did we do with all those small farmers and their children who were displaced? We absorbed them into the growing industrial society.
But now technology (computers) is beginning to displace many of us. The disabled and the unskilled will be the first to go, but I don't believe for a minute that that is where it will stop. Many of us will be displaced too.
That is terrible, you say. Why don't we stop it all? Why don't we prevent it? Because it is pointless to swim against the tide of history, and computers are the tide of history. What we have to do is to figure out how to get up onto the crest of the wave and ride safely ashore--maybe even have some fun on the way. At all costs, we want to avoid ending up face down in the sand.
That, them, is the context in which I see this column. Many of you are just now beginning to think of computerizing your business. Many of you have already started and are struggling with the details. Still others may have gone beyond computerization and into a new business, the business of computers themselves. We all have something to offer each other.
What I hope is that you will write and let me know what you are thinking and wondering. I love what appear on the surface to be naive questions, because almost always they turn out not to be naive at all, but rather, a legitimate questioning of some fundamental, taken-for-granted concept. I also want to hear from those of you who have found solutions.
There is one minor problem with that. Writing a column for a magazine is somewhat like trying to communicate from outer space. What I write today, you will not see for three months. Don't let that stop you. Pretend you have slipped into a time warp or something.
That is enough for this month. Next month I intend to start with the question of whether to computerize at all. Then I want to explore the concept of the computer as a tool. After that, if there is space, I hope to be able to look at a couple of word processing progams.