Techniques: Roundup

Eight technology tomes that are not too hard, not too soft

Most technology books fall into one of two categories. First, there are your nuts-and-bolts how-to manuals written in the arcane language of programmers. Then there are your guru-penned treatises, brimming with blue sky and buzzwords but coming up short in the hands-on advice department. What's rare--and arguably more valuable than the others--are practical guides for executives who must make critical technology decisions (what do we buy and how do we use it?) without the benefit of an information-systems group.

So, as a public service, we've raided the computer and business sections at several bookstores and culled eight volumes we think belong on every growing-company CEO's bookshelf. Our selection criteria: Each book had to take a businessperson's perspective on technology. It had to emphasize practical application over theory. And it had to be written in words that actually appear in Webster's.

Whether you're a novice trying to become computer literate or an experienced user who wants to deploy technology to your competitive advantage, we hope the following choices will provide you with a strong foundation and the tools necessary to make informed decisions.

The first thing you'll need is a grounding in technical vocabulary--not just what the words mean, but how they relate to your business. For that, we recommend Peter G.W. Keen's Every Manager's Guide to Information Technology: A Glossary of Key Terms & Concepts for Today's Business Leader (Harvard Business School Press, 1995, $18.95). Keen believes that businessfolk should be as familiar with the essentials of information technology as they are with the principles of, say, accounting or marketing. Toward that end, his book focuses on 200 terms and concepts he deems critical to making smart technology-related decisions.

Readers get a sense of Keen's approach from the very first entry: acronyms. Everyone knows the computer industry is constantly spinning out new products and processes that are frequently labeled in cryptic three- and four-letter shorthand. Keen's tack is to proffer three questions businesspeople should ask when trying to make sense of this jargon--or rather, of the ideas it represents: Does it have any significance for our architecture? What business opportunity does it represent? Does it require me to rethink any aspect of my business plans?

The idea is to provide readers with tools to evaluate the next big thing, and the thing after that, and the thing after that. That's more important than being able to use "TCP/IP" in polite conversation, although Keen's book will show you how to do that, too.

Once you've got a handle on the lingo, you might want to find out more about how these things you're entrusting your business to actually work. In Understanding Computers (Sybex, 1993, $12.95), authors Nathan Shedroff, J. Sterling Hutto, and Ken Fromm have packed an amazing number of computing fundamentals into just 129 pages. You'll find everything you could possibly want to know about how computers work, how they're made, and which one's best for you.

Information ranges from the "I-knew-that" variety (the applications that make up a desktop-publishing system, for example) to the considerably more obscure (when you mix silicon with some elements, it becomes a conductor; when you mix it with others, it becomes an insulator). But what really makes the book exceptional is the way layout and design reinforce content. Colorful type, illustrations, graphs, and charts are laid out so dynamically that you're compelled to keep reading. The lessons of hypertext linking have also been incorporated: "jump words" lead you to related information. Discussions of how people buy computers, use them, and so on are highlighted in different colors. And the marginalia are practically a book in themselves.

Once you're familiar with computers and computer-speak, it's time to put that knowledge to work. How to Computerize Your Small Business (John Wiley & Sons, 1995, $17.95) is as straightforward as its name implies. Authors Lori Xiradis-Aberle and Craig L. Aberle offer sensible advice about the basics, such as how to select software and hardware, where to buy the goods, how to pay for them, and even how to organize files on your hard disk once the system is set up.

Question: How do you figure out what your system should do? Answer: Analyze your business and create a wish list based on your conclusions, making sure to include those tasks most likely to benefit from a high-tech makeover. If you have one employee, and it takes five minutes to write one payroll check, it does not make sense to automate this job, the authors advise.

Question: Once you've selected your system, how do you budget for it? Answer: Factor into your calculations nine categories of expense, including the cost of training, data entry, and insurance.

Question: How do you evaluate a service contract? Answer: Consider cost, whether the machine is repaired on- or off-site, and whether the vendor can supply a loaner.

How to Computerize Your Small Business does have a bias toward retail, so if you're interested in point-of-sale software, bar-code readers, and inventory-management tools, then you're certainly covered. And there's a bonus: the book contains seven sample configurations of hardware, software, and peripherals that are designed for various businesses.

Admittedly, not every business has a LAN in its future, but if yours does, you'll be eternally grateful for Introduction to Local Area Networks: The Start-Up Guide to Choosing and Building the Best Network for Your Business (Network Press, 1997, $29.99). Robert M. Thomas isn't artist enough to make this beach reading, but given the subject matter, the material goes down pretty smoothly. You'll learn all you need to know--and, thankfully, no more than that--about hardware, software, network design, and databases.

Thomas likes to explain why business readers should care about such matters as communications protocols and coaxial cables. About protocols, for example, he warns that vendors will use these terms and concepts as a way of promoting the advantages of their products over their competitors. If you understand the protocols your system uses, you can make better decisions regarding selection of hardware and software, avoid incompatibility problems, and manage your system's evolution with less anxiety and more productivity. For executives who aren't well versed in technology, it's an important point. Even if you never lay a hand on the network yourself, you should know enough to confidently approve the purchase of its pieces.

Once your system is in place, you can finally turn your attention to exploiting it for business. Marketing is likely to be one of your first applications. If you have the smallest doubt about what computers can do in that department, we urge you to check out eMarketing: Reaping Profits on the Information Highway (Perigee Books, 1995, $14). Database marketing, audio-text, multimedia, faxes, bulletin boards, the Internet--you name it, author Seth Godin explains it.

The book bulges at the seams with instructive case studies. Consider Valley Recreation Products, a promoter of regional dart-and-pool leagues that implemented a fax-based system for quickly exchanging scores between participating bars. Or Bissell Inc., which places multimedia displays in warehouse-style stores that carry its Big Green Clean Machine; the units keep track of which features customers ask about and record their comments for later analysis.

People who think they're excused from reading marketing books because they've mastered the seminal The One to One Future: Building Relationships One Customer at a Time obviously bargained without the sequel. Enterprise One to One: Tools for Competing in the Interactive Age (Doubleday Currency, 1997, $24.95), also by Martha Peppers and Don Rogers, provides the how-to that the first book didn't. The thesis is the same: companies must focus on individual relationships, using technology to build a database of customer information and to customize their wares so thoroughly that no one else can match their level of service. But this time around, the emphasis is on what companies need to know to put their ideas into practice.

Peppers and Rogers believe that, ideally, the one-to-one marketing company will sell to a diverse group of customers, allowing it to benefit from customizing products. And the more customers differ in terms of how much they buy, the easier it is to allocate marketing resources to those with the potentially highest return on investment.

But first you need information on customers' buying habits, and that's not always easy to come by. A bookstore, for example, might have buyers with very different tastes, but it has no way to figure out which ones bring in the most sales. One answer is to invite customers to join a readers' club. Members get a discount card that gives them special deals while letting the store record and track their purchases. In this case, the store collects information in categories such as favorite authors and subjects, which is then incorporated into future promotions. A club member who buys a lot of income-tax-preparation books, for example, might receive promotions for new financial-planning releases. This is, of course, the same kind of strategy that cyberbookstore uses, but Peppers and Rogers demonstrate that you don't have to be on the Web to make it work.

Speaking of, the odds are that you've given up pretending the Internet will have no impact on your business and have begun thinking about what that impact could be. CyberPower for Business: How to Profit from the Information Superhighway (Career Press, 1996, $14.99) touches on such technical fundamentals as modem speeds and autoresponders, but Walter H. Bock and Jeff Senne's book is business-centric at heart. In broad, clear strokes, the authors explain how companies can enlist the Web to make money, increase sales, cut costs, improve customer service, and recruit new employees.

CyberPower is appreciative of on-line technology without glorifying it. For example, it explains that even though you can do things on the Web with pictures and sound, you probably won't want to--at least not until you have your strategy in place. The guiding principle is to use the Internet to emphasize up-to-date information that's valued by your target market.

The final selection on our list won't do much for your understanding of infrastructure or strategy, but it will help you get through your next presentation alive. Even better, it will help get your audience through it awake.

Presentations are complex things, as Claudyne Wilder and David Fine make clear in Point, Click & Wow! A Quick Guide to Brilliant Laptop Presentations (Pfeiffer & Co., 1996, $29.95). Apart from having organized and captivating content, you have to worry about things like equipment, location, and audience type and size. For example, if you're presenting to a medium-size audience (10 to 50 people), do the following: bring a laptop with your presentation loaded on it, along with an LCD panel overhead projector with a 4-by-6-inch or larger screen; make sure the room is extra dark if you're using older LCD panels; and begin with the lights raised and the screen blank. For a larger group (say, 50 to 500), bring a three-color projection unit, an 8-by-6-inch or 9-by-12-inch screen, a power strip, and an extension cord. Also with a bigger audience, assume that equipment setup will take at least one hour.

The authors also suggest types of transitions, dissolves, and build considerations to try, depending upon the audience makeup (whether, for example, it's conservative or informal). For senior executives, a dissolve turns out to be the best transition; for informal departmental meetings, you can open with something called a split-vertical-out and close with a split-vertical-in. Hey, if the business thing doesn't work out, there's always Hollywood.

Anne Field is a freelance writer based in Pelham, N.Y.