Technology is changing business for everyone from media stars to best-selling authors, from retail-store owners to venture capitalists. Chances are, it's affected your business, too
Walk into almost any business, big or small, and you'll quickly see how technology has transformed the way we work. Whether you're an entrepreneur, a bike courier, or a criminal lawyer, one thing is clear: our lives are surrounded by technology that just a handful of years ago would have seemed unfathomable.
How, for example, did we live without the fax machine? The fax machine, which was actually invented by Scottish physicist Alexander Bain in 1842, came onto the scene in the mid-1960s when a court decision allowed non-telephone-company products access to telephone-company lines. In 1986, by which time lower-cost, easier-to-use models had hit the market, 200,000 fax machines were sold. That number soared to 2.2 million in 1991. By the end of 1995, sales of the now-ubiquitous machines are expected to reach a staggering 5 million units.
How has that and other types of technology changed business? The way we do our jobs? We posed those questions to dozens of business owners, technologists, and celebrities. The answers often surprised us, but they did not disappoint. And more often than not, they told us as much about the respondents themselves as they did about the technology that has insinuated itself into their lives.
CEO of Boston Prepatory Co., a 12-employee clothing designer and manufacturer in New York City
Technology has made us more responsive, more able to gain access to information over a broader spectrum. It has taken our information and, instead of putting it into little cubbyholes of the company, made it broadly accessible. Technology is basically a slave to the information you give it. But it makes that information much more functional and dynamic. A filing cabinet is just a box of papers; the same information set up on a computer on a network can give you a dynamic sense of your customers. You can pull up the history of your customers -- the way they pay their bills, what they're talking about -- and you get a feeling for them. It's about making the most out of what you already have. It gives you $10 worth of value from every $1 of information.
When technology breaks down, it makes you realize how effective it is when it's working. Its value hits home when there is a piece of information outside your spectrum, and you're so aggravated that you say, "I can't believe I have to go look for this here!" You almost come to assume that everything should be right at your fingertips at the click of a mouse.
Founder, chairman, and CEO of $51-million Powersoft Corp., in Concord, Mass.
One of the big issues in our business is using electronic customer support, in which people, instead of calling the hot line, will use either the on-line forums that we support or CD-ROMs on which we put very extensive amounts of support. We try culturally to get people to use the electronic support instead of the telephone, in similar ways that banks tried to get people to use ATMs [automated-teller machines] rather than tellers. Banks succeeded because it turned out that it genuinely was quicker and easier to use an ATM than to use a teller. Similarly, people will find that alternative means of customer support are quicker and easier, too.
Executive editor, Currency/Doubleday, New York City
People are working harder and are more enslaved to their work than before. People I know are walking around with beepers, with laptops or organizers, with portable phones. They're becoming slaves to high technology. So it's not high-tech, it's kind of high-shackles or high-manacles. There's no escape.
Still, my greatest companion is a subnotebook. And technology has changed the nature of the manuscripts I'm seeing. I'm getting stuff that's more creative, maybe because the technology is freeing authors from a lot of the drudgery of writing, so they can get more involved with the ideas and can play more with words.
Technology doesn't get enough credit for being the feminists' friend. Technology has killed hierarchy. When you get into companies that have E-mail systems, you don't have to be the loudest man or the biggest braggart. It flattens gender differences.
David E. Kelley
Creator and executive producer of Picket Fences and Chicago Hope and executive producer of L.A. Law
I am probably the least technical person you'll ever meet. I don't even own a computer, much less use one. I'm one of those people whose VCR blinks at 12:00, 24 hours a day, although I've managed to get pretty good with the remote.
But I am a big fan of technology when it's used to make our lives simpler, and it's done that in the editing room for the past five years. Everything's on computer, so you can change scenes with the push of a button. No longer do you have to take out film and cut it and wait an hour before you can see the same scene again. Now you can see the scene within minutes. It's an enormous boost to anybody in television who's turning over shows weekly. Now, could I explain how the machines work? Not for a second. Do they make my life easier? Do I depend on them? Yes, absolutely.
With Picket Fences we shoot everything in Los Angeles. All the snow you see is computer generated. I don't know how the technology works. The film just goes to the lab, and when it comes back there's snow on the ground.
One of the seedlings in my head when I was developing Chicago Hope was how technology is changing the face of medicine. Doctors are having to learn new ways to perform procedures. We took tours of hospitals, where we'd see doctors demonstrating various procedures, and they'd say, sounding somewhat discouraged, that they'll learn how to do a procedure and then five years later it will have become obsolete. The technology will change. So that's part of the show. We treat technology as one of the characters of Chicago Hope Hospital, juxtaposing it against the human element.
General partner of Menlo Ventures, a venture-capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif.
Almost every year, there is a dramatic change that affects the way we conduct our business. The key thing this year is the Internet. It has revolutionized business communications. The Internet is exploding -- I think all the partners here use it actively for E-mail, not only with our existing portfolio companies, but also with potential investors. I've received business plans over the Internet. I've sent term sheets over the Internet. It enables me to send stuff that's in my computer to your computer. So much of our lives today happens to be in our computers.
We installed our first network about five years ago. Then we put all our servers into place to share our company databases, investing databases, people databases, and so on. Next we set up remote access, so all the people at Menlo can work at home in the evenings and on weekends and tie directly into the company network. Currently, our remote access is done using modem technology. In a year or two it will be done using ISDN [integrated services digital network] technology. In California ISDN is inexpensive, and it offers communications capacity that's about five times faster than the fastest modem with compression. As files become bigger, whether they're data files, presentation files, or things like voice and video, that extra speed has a very dramatic impact on remote-access-links performance. We have seen, in California, a dramatic growth in ISDN. Companies offering ISDN-related products find that their business is just booming.
A director of Institute for the Future, in Menlo Park, Calif.
We are in the early stages of a period of absolutely fundamental change that's at least a century-scale change, but it may be even larger. We are throwing out our industrial-age models and our metaphors for our organizations, and we're substituting new models that are based on biological models. So it's a shift from organization to organism. And you see it all over the place -- in the rise of business teams and the de-emphasis of hierarchy. It used to be that our companies' organization charts looked like trees. Now our organization charts are beginning to look like webs, the quintessential biological structure.
The problem with all that is, we don't have any words for the new organizations that are emerging, except for very basic terms like virtual company. Our vocabulary is impoverished -- just as the vocabulary for different kinds of organizational structures in the 1880s was very impoverished, and no one quite realized what was going on.
The innovation is going on within small businesses. It's not the IBMs of this world that are figuring out new models of organizational effectiveness. It's small companies, people who are setting up to run small businesses, and they have counterparts in other cities. They're creating small virtual companies, or they're leveraging telecommunications to project a presence that's vastly larger than they really are.
President of 800-FLOWERS, a retail floral company based in Westbury, N.Y., with more than $100 million in sales
When I was growing up, in the 1950s and 1960s, we used to shop on Main Street. Merchants knew who we were. Then we started traveling out to more suburban areas, where discount stores had opened up. People became willing to trade the convenience of a local community store for the better price a discounter could offer.
Technology has allowed those progressive retailers to offer not only a better price but also quality service. Technology squeezes the inefficiency out of every process in the retail chain, from manufacturing to distribution.
Our company is able to provide very warm, customized personal service, the kind you'd expect from your local community florist. We can do that on a worldwide basis because of our database capability, our communications capability, and our effective employment of technology to squeeze the inefficiency out of our systems and processes. So we're able to offer superior value and superior service to a worldwide community of consumers.
On a personal level, it used to be a real burden for me to take a week off, but this past summer my family and I rented a place out on Long Island. I was able to exercise with the kids in the morning, go to the beach, and be back in at 11 a.m. From 11 to 2:30, I had my portable plugged in and I'd return phone calls on my cellular phone. I'd answer E-mail. I'd be in touch with my secretary, who would have updated my calendar on-line. So I'd work for three and a half concentrated hours. I'd play golf with my son in the afternoon, and when I'd get paged, I'd use my cellular phone to return the call. I'd come back in the afternoon, look at my E-mail, and answer everything. The kids would go to bed at around 10, and I'd spend 45 minutes just going through stuff on my computer, even making a couple of appointments for the next day.
President of Starving Students of San Diego, a moving company
The business of relocating households basically hasn't changed since the Roman Empire. People still have to show up at the house, manhandle the household effects, load them into a vehicle, and transport them to the new residence, where they are physically unloaded.
The real technological advances have come in the area of communications. But even in communications, it is not certain that the increases in speed and accuracy outweigh the additional costs. At the risk of being suspected of being a Luddite, I would say that technology in the moving industry has succeeded only in increasing the power bureaucracy can exercise over a cringing business community. The next big technological advance in my business must await the coming of the Star Trek age, when your household goods will be deatomized and reassembled at your new residence.
Coanchor of PrimeTime Live, based in Washington, D.C.
Technology is revolutionizing the communications business. Satellites, of course, give us the ability to broadcast live anywhere. We've gone from reporting on a story after the fact to actually watching it as it develops. You are there! That has changed the shelf life of news stories. In the old days -- 10, 15, 20 years ago -- stories would take days or weeks to really develop because of the transmission time and the gathering-of-the-story time. Today everyone watches the chase. Everybody. With satellites, as far as any specific incident or act is concerned, there is so much of an immediate deluge of information that people don't have to wait.
On a personal level, my wife and I have range land in New Mexico, on which we raise cattle and sheep, a few goats. I keep the records and the books, using a computer, naturally. I do the ranch checks, using Quicken, a word processor, and a dot-matrix printer.
In broadcasting I continued using a typewriter until about 1991, when I finally threw in the towel. In the old days, when I was covering hard-news beats in Washington, we would write our minute and a half in sound bites. But today, doing these 15-minute-and-longer magazine reports, there is a lot of writing to do, and a lot of correcting, and a lot of revisions. Well, if you try to do that with a typewriter, it is just impossible.
My job has become far more difficult. When I was a hard-news reporter, covering hard-news events, I knew how to do it. I knew you needed to find out who was doing what to whom. And there it was. You went after it, you worked your sources, and you stood outside doors waiting for people to come out and talk to you. Today I need to think of some additional angle that's not the obvious. And, boy, thinking is the most difficult thing in the world.
Let me go back to the range. Up until this year we didn't have cellular service in the Hondo Valley, in New Mexico, so there was no way to contact anyone out on the range unless you had one of those very expensive radio systems. Now we have very cheap cellular service, so I can pick up the phone, dial the ranch foreman, and find him out in the middle of a pasture of 16,000 acres -- whereas before, I would have to wait until the end of the day. It saves me time. It saves me money. But it's also fun! It's fun!
Publisher and founding editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly (now Whole Earth Review ), and author of The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. Brand is based in San Francisco Bay, Calif.
I just finished writing a book called How Buildings Learn. It has 350 photographs and five levels of text on nearly every spread. I laid out the book myself in detail on a computer, and wrote the captions in the legend and the credits on each spread. That was easy to do with PageMaker and Quark. So I'm able to create a book myself.
Some critics are already saying that it's a tightly integrated, beautiful book, blah, blah, blah. Well, what they're responding to is a book that was designed in detail by the author! That was not possible until now.
Assistant general manager of the Florida Marlins, a major-league baseball team based in Miami
When we started the franchise, in the fall of 1991, one of the first things we undertook was to write a scouting program to give our scouts the ability to file all their reports via modem.
I could be sitting in a hotel in Cincinnati and have access via my laptop to every report we've had in the history of our franchise on every professional player in baseball. So if we're in the middle of some trade talks and I need to do some research on a particular organization, I can sort that database, which now has more than 18,000 records of professional reports, and say, "OK, give me all the top prospects in a particular organization." And then I can filter through that and pick out the ones that meet our criteria, whatever trade it might be. That research used to take me half a day, going through written reports. Now I can do it in less than an hour.
Voice mail has been a huge time-management tool in baseball. In our business, who knows where a scout's going to be? But I know I can reach our people within five hours at the very most by one call, because they check in on a regular basis.
MIT'S LEGO Professor of Learning Research, based in Cambridge, Mass. He is the author of Mindstorms and the creator of Logo, a programming language for children
In 1964 I came to MIT from Geneva, Switzerland. It was the first place where you could use a computer for writing and really sit down with it and have a lot of time with it. It was a tremendous revelation; it allowed for a huge explosion of creativity. It radically changed my life. I began to do things I couldn't do before. I thought, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if children could have the same experience I am having? To go from imagining a project to being able to carry it out? Wouldn't it be wonderful if a kid could find not just a pen pal but someone who shared a particular interest? And the two of them could share ideas and could do things together?" So that started me on a mission.
When schools try to give children information about technology that the children can't use at that time but maybe will use 10 years later, it's as if those children are learning a form of a dead language. You learn something and then store it away. The biggest change in technology is that now children are able to acquire knowledge in relation to an immediate interest and an immediate project. For some children, the computer is beginning to offer the freedom of individual creativity.
Lisa Mangano Berglund
Cofounder of Ambrosia, in Napa Valley, Calif., a company that sells premium Napa and Sonoma wines by direct mail
We're a small business, and technology lets us appear bigger. We run a mail-order wine business, but we create the ambience of being your neighborhood connoisseur, who can help you navigate through the quagmire of wines that are out there.
We keep very limited inventory on hand. Wine has to be stored under ideal conditions, so we leave it at the winery, where the temperature and humidity are strictly monitored. When we take an order, everything is then put into our computer. We can tell people what's in stock, what's hot, and what's got high ratings, and we can look up a customer's purchasing history and make recommendations.
Our entire system is linked together, so when we enter an order on-line for, say, a case of wine, a purchase order prints out automatically, and we fax that directly to the winery. The wine comes to us in a day, and we fill the order.
We are adding a dimension of technology to an industry in which there has been none. It's an industry that's been hands-on and face-to-face, and we're trying to maintain that personalized feeling, but we're taking it a step further.
A Chicago-based criminal-defense lawyer and the author of numerous books, including Presumed Innocent and Burden of Proof
I wear two hats, and technology has had an enormous impact on each one. In my life as a lawyer, it's had tremendous applications, going back to the time I started. I was working on a huge case for the federal government, which had an early computer-research system. I could literally do the research of three or four lawyers because I was doing it by computer, and the other side didn't have that advantage. Obviously, that kind of system is now a staple of everybody's practice.
Computers, fax machines, and E-mail, for better or for worse, are the daily tools of most practicing lawyers. For me technology has a particularly significant application because I divide my time between writing and practicing law. Because I can gain access to the firm's database and documents by modem, I can be at home and still discuss documents and drafts with clients and colleagues. I'm saved from that dreadful "If you don't have it in your briefcase, you're just screwed" phenomenon.
And I don't know if I would be a writer were it not for the computer. Over the past 20 years, the most significant change in my life was the computer. I write in a peculiar kind of "gathering" way; for me the initial drafts of a book just do not go in a straight line. I literally write passages from all over the book all over the place, and then face the sometimes monumental task of stitching them together. I don't think I could have given my books such intricate plots if I hadn't had the liberty to go back over my work again to sort of monkey around, experiment, tinker with small details.
THE INC. FAXPOLL
How Has Technology Changed the Way You Do Your Job? Or Has It?
People working at every level, from the shop floor to the Oval Office, are heralding the coming of a truly interactive, technologically savvy workforce capable of commuting to and from the workplace via the information superhighway. Is it just the ticket for sustaining economic superiority? Or are we looking at a thoroughfare littered with meaningless data and polluted by information overload? What do you think? Fax us your thoughts.
1. Has technology made you more productive?
No, about the same
No, less productive
2. Has technology made your job more complex?
No, about the same
No, less complex
3. Where do you do most of your work?
At the company
In my home
On the road
4. Where did you do most of your work five years ago?
At the company
In my home
On the road
5. What percentage of your employees work at home?
6. Has technology changed the way you think about business? If so, how? If not, why not?
7. Has technology changed the way you do your job? If so, how? If not, why not?
Very small Midsize
Small-midsize Very big