What NOT to expect from your computer -- Unreasonable expectations & wishful thinking

expect as a result of computerization. 1998

By Poney Carpenter

Computers can do everything I need, and I don't have to worry about a thing, right?....Sure, anything you say.

Computers ARE powerful. They can be useful, helpful, and even indispensable. But if you think spending money on all the latest digital toys is the end of the story, guess again. Too often, people have unreasonable expectations about what computers can do for them. Don't get me wrong - computers are truly mind-boggling. Integrating computers into your business offers enormous benefits, BUT, it's important to have a realistic understanding of what to expect from this new wonder-tool.

We've always done things this way.

Most software won't perform tasks exactly the way you're used to doing them. The most flexible software is generally mass-market software. Packages like word processors and spreadsheets offer incredible flexibility in comparison to most industry specific software (called vertical market software). But there's often a trade-off: vertical market software can be much more powerful in the specific areas you might need. Also, although certain commercial software can be customized to some extent, if you really need something done your way, then custom software is an option you can consider, although it will probably be much more expensive.

Some software can be very flexible. Still, you'll probably have to change some of your procedures when you computerize certain aspects of your business. The new approach may even be an improvement over your old way. While poor software can easily emulate inefficient paper-based systems, well designed software can take full advantage of computer technology to improve performance of many tasks.

Do I really need that, too?

If you want to do the best thing possible for your business, you need to go out and buy the most expensive computer you can find - including all the gadgets that go along with it. Not really....

You don't have to go wild spending money to get something that will work. But don't try to make hardware or software do something it wasn't meant to do. The amount of time you can save by buying what you need will usually pay for the investment quickly. This is especially true of software. The hardware is necessary, but without the right software, it won't get you anywhere.

My employees still can't get the work done.

A computer can greatly enhance an employeeıs efficiency, but it cannot make a good employee out of a bad one. Giving a bad employee a good computer will not improve poor work habits or make up for a lack of experience. But a good employee can often be twice as effective after they have learned how to use a computer.

A computer also won't give employees the ability to do jobs they're not trained for. An estimating program won't make an estimator; CAD software won't make a drafts-person; a panel optimizer wonıt make an engineer. It's important that employees first have the necessary skills and experience to do their jobs. Computers can then improve efficiency and accuracy.

I can never find the information I need.

Computers will not organize the disorganized.

Imagine if every time you had to put something in your filing cabinet, you walked over, opened a random drawer, and stuffed the paper in -- someplace. Now when it's time to retreive this information, what do you think's going to happen?

A computer can be the most efficient filing cabinet you'll ever own. But you still have to be organized. Develop a system of organization that makes sense, and preferably one that someone else can understand too. Name files in a way that identifies what they contain. Date items where itıs relevant so you wonıt wonder when they were created. Archive or delete unneeded files so they wonıt cause clutter. Create separate directories for files that belong together, and avoid cute file names that are irrelevant.

But I thought the computer would take care of that.

Don't expect a computer to fix your mistakes.

The quality of the RESULTS the computer gives you will depend on the quality of the DATA you give it. Remember: Garbage in - Garbage out. Not all software is created equal. Some software may not perform up to expectations or complete the needed tasks properly.

Colossal mistakes will create colossal problems. A computer cannot be expected to anticipate (or fix) major mistakes made by the operator. If you never back up your data, if you don't put backups in a safe place, if you shut off the power while the computer is operating at a task, or if you do any number of less-than-clever things, it's not the computer's fault when things go wrong.

I don't want to be a computer expert.

You wonıt benefit from a computer unless you are willing to invest time in beating the learning curve. If you spend a lot of money on a computer and then refuse to take the time to learn how to use it, youıre wasting time and money.

I once had a client who obviously needed to learn some basic computer skills (she wasnıt sure what the mouse was). When I suggested a good book that would help her, she said "I don't want to become a computer expert, I just want it to help me with my work.". If you want to make best use of your computer investment, youıre going to have to spend time reading the manuals, understanding the hardware, and learning how to use the software.

"It Just Doesn't Work."

If you start your tech support calls out this way, there's a problem.

It's great to be able to call tech support when something goes wrong, but some people treat tech support like a psychic hot-line. Generally, the technician spends the first half of the conversation trying to figure out what the problem is (often to the frustration of the caller).

Having been in the technician's chair, I can recommend a number of things you can do to make the tech-support processes more efficient and less frustrating.

When calling for hardware tech support, have the following information available: Whatıs your computer model and configuration? What peripherals are you using? What system software and utilities are you using? Have you changed anything about your hardware setup recently? When calling for software support, thereıs some additional information that can be useful: When did the problem first start? Did anything change right before you noticed the problem? Have you added any new software recently? Can you repeat the problem? How?

Having this type of information on hand will make for a more pleasant tech-support experience for everyone.

Computers are among the most sophisticated tools of our time, with an enormous potential to help us further our business goals. BUT, just buying a computer and letting it sit on the desk won't accomplish a thing. Integrating computers into your business can be both a challenging and rewarding experience - an experience that can be greatly aided by expert advice. I'll be offering such advice, in digestible bytes, here in this column.

Poney Carpenter is a computer consultant and software developer with woodworking experience. In the woodworking industry, he has worked as an installer, estimator, project manager, and engineer. In the computer industry, he has worked developing vertical-market software, providing technical support and training, and doing general consulting for businesses. Poney operates Promethean Technologies, a computing consulting firm with a website at http://www.promtech.com