Technology's accelerated pace doesn't tolerate bystanders

The eminent physicist Steven Hawking has observed that we have only 20 more years to discover the origins of the universe, because by that time computers will be able to outthink scientists and will make the discovery for us. Technology offers businesses a tough challenge, too: change or die.

That's because new technology offers new opportunities, and if a company can't reinvent itself every few years to take advantage of those opportunities, it may be left behind any competitors that can. Remember when the Starship Enterprise switched to warp speed? The stars that had been pinpoints in the distance suddenly streaked past in a moment. Technology can make businesses feel like that. Fortunately, technology doesn't just force you to change, it also gives you the means to do so.

Years ago my company, Steinbrecher Corp., in Burlington, Mass., built high-performance radios for the U.S. government. That changed one day when we visited a cell site owned by our local cellular-service provider. The cell site is the base station that your phone talks to when you make a cellular telephone call. Standing in that small building full of electronic equipment, we realized we could do the same job in a three-cubic-foot box, using our radio technology. But becoming a commercial business supplying base-station radio equipment to the cellular industry was not just a matter of developing a new product. We needed new core technologies and a new approach to business.

First, we established cross-functional teams to address everything from how we develop specifications for new products to how we orient new employees. But we couldn't have made the transition without new computer systems, too. In our old government business, for example, a special-contracts department recorded orders and the requirements of each contract. But in a commercial business, the marketing department can handle that. The result: we put in a new order-entry system.

Our inventory system needed revamping as well. The old software couldn't account for some of the ways items left the stockroom, and manual tracking attempts weren't making it into the system. As our three-person MIS department exhausted itself trying to modify the program, employees began to bring in their own spreadsheet programs. Then we got our first virus. Good grief! We needed some software-development rules, so we formed another cross-functional team.

Next, we installed E-mail and set up an MIS E-mail database so that everyone could keep track of problems and solutions. Once people learned not to be vague or spiteful, we made swift progress. Two years later, more than 90% of our business is from the cellular industry, and we are growing at over 100% each quarter.

Now we're hooked on the Internet. We discovered a large international component of our new market by electronically sifting through enormous amounts of data. Our engineers remotely troubleshoot customer equipment on-line. Soon we want to send intelligent software agents onto the Internet to find information.

Where will it all end? The limiting factor is not technology but our willingness to adapt. Someday we might have enough confidence in our computer system to ask its advice -- even to let it lead. Whoa! Have I suggested that I might be working for a computer someday?

R. Douglas Shute ( is CEO of Steinbrecher Corp., in Burlington, Mass.