Not long ago, I found myself standing in line in one of the vaguely American-style fast-food restaurants that are becoming ubiquitous in Tokyo. After about five minutes it dawned on me that the line was barely moving. I craned my neck to see what was going on beyond the counter. About twice as many employees as I would have expected were busy working, all moving far more quickly than I have ever seen anyone move in a U.S. fried-chicken joint. What's more, computers were scattered all along the counter and throughout the kitchen, and most were flashing and beeping as employees banged away on the keyboards.
So what was the delay? After watching for a few minutes, I realized to my horror that the counter help was typing orders into the computers -- and then promptly, and carefully, writing them by hand onto slips and carrying the slips over to the preparation area. There, an employee was retyping the orders into another computer before starting to cook. (Bear in mind that typing Japanese is a torturous affair for all but the highly experienced.)
I don't mean to disparage the efficiency of Japanese small businesses. Computers just happen to be new to restaurants there, and they clearly have a lot to work out. The point is that technology in and of itself is not a solution. In fact, it can be a downright impediment. What matters is the cleverness and care with which you apply technology to solving the problems at hand.
A spectacular example of how even superior technology can't replace attention to critical needs lies in writer Gary Taubes's story, "The Rise and Fall of Thinking Machines." Once held up as a beacon of technological excellence among America's leading high-tech companies, Thinking Machines went down the tubes because it ignored the markets that would have clamored for its supercomputers. It is a cautionary tale -- not just for high-tech companies, but for any business in danger of letting itself get enamored of know-how and out of touch with what potential customers want.
The same caution applies to the less exotic technology of PC networks, a subject tackled in our cover story, "LAN of Opportunity." In it writer Brian McWilliams provides a look at several growing companies that took up the challenge of linking their computers. Although stories abound of businesses that spend too much on networks and get too little out of them, McWilliams's piece illustrates that companies that carefully match their networking technology to their needs are likely to come out ahead.
Having to match technology to needs is the reason larger companies hire a chief information officer. Can you justify hiring a CIO? The truth may be that you can't afford not to hire one. For a good start on the decision-making process, check out Alan B. Glou's column, "Do You Need a CIO?"
With or without a CIO, companies have to perform a high-wire act when it comes to technology, being careful neither to avoid nor embrace it unquestioningly. We hope our stories will help remind you that technology is a tool of competitiveness, not its essence.
-- David H. Freedman, Editor