Gary Chapman ordinarily suffers fools patiently, if not gladly. But today, when a fellow employee at EEV Inc., an electronic-parts manufacturer in Elmsford, N.Y., pokes his head into Chapman's office, interrupting the sales manager's telephone conversation for the third time, Chapman says firmly, "I'm busy. I'm on the phone."

The tactic works. His colleague retreats -- once and for all.

Chapman is both surprised and delighted by the outcome. To learn how best to handle his nettlesome co-worker, he sought advice from neither friend, how-to book, consultant, nor shrink. Instead he turned to The Management Edge, a software package from Human Edge Software Corp. in Palo Alto, Calif., a start-up whose computer programs promise frazzled managers sound advice on handling subordinates, superiors, customers -- indeed, anyone they might encounter during the business day.

Although using the computer to juggle people -- rather than words or numbers -- may have the ring of Orwellian fantasy, the concept is catching on among software developers. Resource l Inc., in San Diego, for example, is introducing computer programs based on the works of noted management experts and best-selling authors, such as Alec Mackenzie (The Time Trap) and Kenneth Blanchard and Robert Lorber (Putting The One Minute Manager to Work, their sequel to The One Minute Manager). The software, claims Mona Williams, a company spokeswoman, will help managers change their behavior while simultaneously teaching them computer skills.

Human Edge's business-strategy software, however, is by far the most sophisticated attempt yet to tackle the vagaries of human behavior. Founded by psychologist Jim Johnson, who also started Psych Systems Inc., developer and seller of the first on-line automated psychological testing service, the company has three products -- The Sales Edge, The Management Edge, and The Negotiation Edge ($250 each) -- that are all expert, or knowledge-based, systems, a type of artificial intelligence. (The Communications Edge and The Leadership Edge are slated to appear shortly.)

Writing this kind of software requires collecting a number of "rules" that are culled either from experts or from the existing research on a subject. Using the rules, a computer can then figure out what the best course of action is in any given situation. To develop The Sales Edge, for example, Johnson and his staff went through stacks of sales-oriented business literature, gleaning, he says, "every piece of advice that any expert has ever offered." Then they structured the recommendations according to their appropriateness for individual personality types.

All the programs work similarly: First you agree or disagree with from 70 to 100 statements, such as, "I often have trouble going to sleep because of worries about the job," "I like to attend parties related to my job," and "A good manager has total control." From your responses the computer develops a personality profile.

Then, whenever you need tips on dealing with a specific individual, you assess his or her character by checking off adjectives: "self protecting," "simple-minded," "smart," or "prestige-oriented," for instance. (With The Management Edge you also describe the work environment; The Negotiation Edge, which uses decision-making theory based on mathematical formulas, requires that you enter your expectations.)

With the profiles loaded, the computer will search through its huge store of information -- the packages contain up to 300,000 to 400,000 words of text on two or three disks -- and produce a report giving you specific pointers on how to act most effectively with the targeted individual. The Sales Edge, which walks you through preparation, presentation, and opening and closing ploys, tells you what to expect from your quarry and how to succeed. The Management Edge covers such areas as motivating employees, finding the right niche for a worker, firing, and improving communications.

When Gary Chapman plugged in The Management Edge he was told that his coworker, whose irritating habits he had chalked up to overenthusiasm, belongs to that troublesome class of individuals who don't recognize other people's responsibilities and obligations. And, the report admonished Chapman, "you too easily forgive those things." On the second or third occasion, point your view out to him, the report continued, then go about your business -- advice which Chapman followed with good effect.

Chapman has also tried The Management Edge with customers and managers of the corporation's parent company in England. As a technical person, he says, he tends to be "very meticulous about numbers" and usually gets "right down to the details." But the computer informed him that several of his frequent business contacts become overwhelmed by too many specifics. So Chapman forced himself to concentrate on the larger picture by putting a big sign on his desk that read, "No details." "It was fantasic," he says. "People were more receptive to the things I wanted to do."

"I hope nobody else gets [The Management Edge]," Chapman adds, "because it's like a secret weapon, like being able to hear somebody's dreams. You can plan the whole strategy before you go see [anyone], and you know you're right."

Steven Slomka, coodinator of corporate education at Tellabs Inc., an $80-million data- and telecommunications-products manufacturer in Lisle, Ill., shares Chapman's enthusiasm for Human Edge software, but for a different reason. Slomka, who says that using the program is "a real piece of cake," was looking for something new with which to fire up his salespeople, and he decided to give The Sales Edge a try. At a company training session, he instructed the salespeople each to key in on one customer, using the software. He then videotaped them after they made a sample presentation.

"They loved it," he says. "A big part of sales training is getting people motivated, and people really get a kick out of playing with it." But he considers the program more than a "one-shot gimmick." Salespeople, he thinks, will find it useful in the field, since they can keep a file on each of their customers. And it doesn't trouble him that a report may contain some contradictory statements. After all, he says, "Who's a totally rational person all the time?"

Although some users consider the programs the next best thing to an ever-vigilant personal consultant, detractors argue that this type of software is, by its nature, limited. "It's a nice game, and it might be reasonably accurate," says Murray Weiner, a consultant with Rohrer, Hibler & Replogle Inc., an international industrial psychology and management consulting firm. "But it can't possibly get into all of the conceivable interactions."

The programs aren't intended to act as infallible crystal balls, counters Human Edge's Johnson. "To expect any kind of strategist to be right 100% of the time is a mistake," he says. "No human being is 100% accurate."

Stephen Tyrrell, vice-president and managing partner of Ashwill/Schneider Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based commercial real estate firm, agrees. He uses both The Sales Edge and The Management Edge and finds them "remarkably accurate." In fact, he thinks that The Sales Edge is more helpful to him than Professional Selling Skills training -- a three-day seminar developed by Xerox Learning Systems. Still, he observes, "I'm not saying that you're going to use it as a bible. It's [just] a great resource to have."

If you are among those who like the idea of business-strategy software, you will love The Life Strategy Software that Human Edge is now developing for the home market. The new series will wrestle with the tough issues of improving relationships with a spouse, handling the family preschooler, and persuading children to buckle down to homework.

Even Johnson admits, however, that strategy software isn't a total solution to life's tribulations. When Johnson wanted to fire an employee who had become a morale problem, he ran the outplacement section of The Management Edge on him. Proceed with caution, the report advised, this employee tends to be litigious. So Johnson hired a labor lawyer to ensure that the procedure was carried out in strict accordance with California law. "Sure enough," says Johnson, "he sued."

CORRECTION-DATE: May, 1984

CORRECTION:

In "Electronic Advisers" (Executive Micro, March) Mona Williams was identified as being an employee of Human Edge Software. She is, in fact, a company spokeswoman at Resource 1 Inc.