Taking a bone from a dog would be easier than separating you from your PCs or fax machines, an Inc. poll shows. Many of you are so at ease with office technology that you willingly compute on vacation

Steve Baker took his laptop up to a mountain cabin in New Mexico. He took his computer on vacation. He really did.

Up there in the western woods the vice-president of International Exterminator Corp., a Fort Worth pest-control service, switched on, booted up, and tuned in to an electronic news service for timely snippets that could help give the family-owned company a leg up on the competition.

Baker is by no means alone. Fully 12% of those responding to the FaxPoll in Inc.'s 1992 special fall issue, The Office Technology Adviser, say they use their computers on vacation -- evidence, certainly, of office technology's enabling power but also of its ability to further erase the distinction between work and home life.

Three-quarters of those captains of small businesses work on their computers at home, and almost 25% hit the keyboard while on the road. They're not likely to be writing new programming code, but they are creating marketing programs, writing funding proposals, crafting product plans -- in short, pressing forward with all the usual management tasks that drive any business, large or small.

What emerges from Inc.'s survey is a picture of the small-business leader as an active, involved user of today's most modern high-tech tools. While many express ambivalence about the value of some office technologies -- local-area networks, for instance -- the majority are obviously at ease with desktop computers and convinced there's a cast-iron link between high-tech tools and increased productivity.

Listen to Baker: "If you don't keep up with office technology, you'll be left in the dust by those who do."

He should know. As an "early adopter" -- he was using a Radio Shack Model 1 when Apple was barely a twinkle in anyone's eye -- he can cite examples of how his readiness to boot up early and often has helped the family business. Take one case in 1986, when, by tapping into the CompuServe electronic news service, he picked up a bulletin about an Environmental Protection Agency ban on chlordane, a chemical then used widely as an insecticide in the United States. The result? Baker, already migrating to the only alternative chemical then available, was able to stop a planned order for 30 drums of chlordane and sell those in stock at once, avoiding new purchases and dodging exorbitant hazardous-waste-disposal charges. His estimate of net savings: some $15,000. Not bad for an afternoon's work -- especially for a company then with annual revenues of around half a million dollars.

Technology is part of the fabric of contemporary office life in ways computer pioneer Charles Babbage could never have dreamed of back in 1834. But few of Inc.'s readers are techno-tipsy. While there are small-company leaders who delight in being seen with the newest Apple PowerBook laptop, the poll betrays a pragmatism that concentrates on return on investment, guards cash flow, and frets about the computer literacy of employees.

High tech is not without its heartaches. For many small businesses, per-sonal computers are no impulse buy. The perception of high cost is hard to shake, PC price wars notwithstanding; more than half of all respondents cited equipment costs as a drawback to relying on office technology.

There's tut-tutting, too, about the increased training time and cost incurred by office technology; 26% of all respondents finger that as a drawback.

Small-business managers' impressions of what works for them and what doesn't make compelling reading. Notebook computers aren't in every CEO's briefcase, no matter what the ads might say. Nearly 30% don't use them at all. Contrast that with the near ubiquity of conventional desktop computers apparent from the poll.

But the most value is placed on fax machines. No new technology they, but the compact versions that enable anyone to fire off an eight-page report to a rep in Australia have streamlined office communications, much as the telephone did a century earlier.

Small-business chieftains reserve their spleen for voice mail, a useful tool whose notoriety owes more to its misuse than to any meaningful technical failings. Twelve percent of respondents describe it as "loathsome" -- the highest level of revulsion leveled at any of the equipment listed. "It's used to hide," sniped one respondent. Said another: "I despise voice mail."

These days few would contend that it's a waste of time to keep an eye on advances in the business tools that might help your company grow longer legs. But technology-starred eyes are out. After all, you've still got a company to run.

Pass the Lotion -- No, the Laptop

Computing at the beach or by the pool doesn't fit everyone's idea of getting away from it all, but 14% of small-business owners and presidents do use their computers on vacation -- and you can bet big money they're not playing"Wing Commander II." Overall, 12% of Inc.'s respondents compute on vacation.

Where do you use a computer?

In my office 98%

At home 76

On the road 23

Calling on customers 14

On vacation 12

Note: Multiple responses account for total percentage above 100%.

Love-Love Relationship
Small-business managers are well into the comfort zone here. Asked to choose one statement to describe their relationship with their computer, nearly half -- 48% -- say they work well together (compared with 47% of all respondents).

How's your relationship with your computer?

We work well together 47%

I wish I knew how to use it better 24

I'm its master 20

We're still strangers 4

It's just a tool I have to use 3

It frustrates me endlessly 2

Worth It? No Debate!
There's a rousing chorus of approval for the effectiveness of new office technology. How rousing? Oh, about 73% of all respondents say their investments in new office technologies have absolutely paid for themselves in increased productivity. High-tech businesses have far fewer misgivings: fully 84% are sure of high tech's solid payback.

Have your investments in new office technologies paid for themselves in increased productivity?

Absolutely 73%

Somewhat 21

Don't know 4

Not at all 2

Gaining an Edge
One-fifth of survey respondents say that by using the most advanced technology, they maintain an edge over competitors. (It's no surprise that those in high-tech businesses show even more enthusiasm: 31% checked off that response.)

Which statement best describes you and your company?

We maintain an edge by using the most advanced 20%technology

I personally keep up with the latest office technology 39

We have a dedicated office-tech staff 5

Having the latest office technology isn't a priority 30

My staff uses all the necessary equipment, but I don't 2

I've invested a lot in office technology and been 4disappointed

We don't use computers 0

Take My Money, Not My Fax
If truth be told, Inc. businesses would be paralyzed if their pens and pencils were spirited away overnight. "Indispensable" was how 84% of those polled described these most basic of communication tools. But pencils are scarcely less dispensable to today's small businesses than personal computers and fax machines are, according to our survey. There are a few survivalists -- 3% -- who say they can live without their desktop computers. And a hardy 2% concede that, yes, some rudimentary form of existence would still be possible sans fax. There's a powerful appeal in tapping in a few numbers and sending words and pictures around the world in a twinkling.

How important is each of the following to your business's day-to-day operations?

Indis- Worth- Can live Do not pensable while without use

Personal computers 76% 18% 3% 2%

Notebook computers 10 30 30 29

Laser printers 48 28 15 8

Local-area networks 23 20 24 31

Electronic mail 9 20 36 31

Copiers 77 16 6 1

Fax machines 81 16 2 1

Cellular phones 25 32 28 12

Voice mail 16 24 28 21

Pens and pencils 84 11 3 0

Post-Its 48 35 13 1

Note: Percentages do not total 100% because we excluded one response category, "Loathsome." n