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Dancing Geek to Geek
Is the hard drive your Aunt Gladys gave you on the fritz? Is your 56kbps modem running like a '77 Ford Granada? When you've got a computer problem, nothing is quite as reassuring as the sight of a good old-fashioned, black-flood-pant, white-shirt-with-pocket-protector, duct-taped-glasses-wearing dork. At least that's what Geeks On Wheels is banking on. For $45 an hour, several geeks from this Lawrence, Kan.-based company will show up onsite to help businesses tackle a wide range of PC and Macintosh problems. Their most requested services include hardware and software installation, training, trouble-shooting, Internet tutorials, and connecting peripheral devices and internal modems.
While the nerd uniform is optional, all Geeks On Wheels employees are the real thing. "We are geeks and there's no getting around it," says Director David S. Greenbaum. "I love Star Trek and all I do is talk about computers."
Dan Simons, founder of Geeks On Wheels, got the idea for the company in May 1996 when he was having trouble installing a computer game and needed a smart, nonjudgmental friend to help him, says Greenbaum. Simons figured that many of the small companies or business units in rural Kansas without IS departments could benefit from similar assistance. In the past, the only recourse these companies had was to drive an hour to the nearest computer store or wait endlessly on hold at a customer help desk, suffering the inhumane Muzak-al sounds of "Close to You."
Currently, Geeks On Wheels serves only the Kansas and Colorado areas, but Greenbaum expects the company to slowly expand to other states. For more information, call 888 GEEK-911 or visit www.geek911.com.
8 Reasons to Call Geeks:
Industry Fat Cat
So much for the cybercommunity's reputation as part of a hip underground. According to a new study, information technology is now the United States's largest industry, outstripping old stalwarts such as food products and automotive manufacturing. The study, sponsored by the American Electronics Association and NASDAQ, says that the IT sector, a combination of the computing and telecommunications industries, produced 6.2 percent of U.S. goods and services in 1996. IT's 4.3 million-strong workforce raked in the bucks in 1996, too, earning wages nearly 73 percent higher than the average salary in the private sector.
Hmm, less hip but a fatter wallet-trip to Bermuda anyone?
Less PO'd at the P.O.
Tampa or Tempe? Broadway or Broad Street? Gone may be the days when bleary-eyed post office clerks laboriously squinted at indecipherable addresses scrawled on envelopes. Sargur Srihari, executive director of the Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition (CEDAR) at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is trying to make things a little easier for Postal Service workers. Srihari has developed technology that decodes envelopes addressed in longhand.
He and his associates designed Handwritten Address Interpretation (HWAI) technology to examine whole words in addresses rather than examine words one letter at a time, as is typical of many handwriting recognition systems (personal digital assistants, for example). HWAI also cheats a bit: The system's secret of success is that it looks at the envelope's ZIP code and accesses a database of possible street names within that area, then compares that information to the beginning of the handwritten street address.
Cheating or not, the system is paying off: A test deployment in Tampa, Fla., that began in December 1996 worked well enough that HWAI systems are now in place at all 255 of the USPS's major processing and distribution centers, according to Srihari. The HWAI systems successfully recognize the ZIP code for roughly 70 percent of handwritten addresses and achieve full address recognition for 30 percent. The systems may cut post office labor costs by as much as $150 million per year by reducing the need for human intervention in routing hand-addressed letters.
At that rate, one year's savings will easily justify the USPS's investment in Srihari's research-the Postal Service has been funding his work since he first approached the agency with the idea in 1983. Srihari also notes that the agency had a billion-dollar budget surplus in 1997. "We like to think that about one-tenth of that billion-dollar surplus was our contribution," Srihari says.
Shhh! (We've Gone Home)
Telecommuting has become the business world's most guarded secret. Companies that once were basking in public praise over their telecommuting programs are today jealously guarding their work-at-home strategies from competitors. "There's a change in people's attitudes toward telecommuting," says John M.H. Edwards, CEO of Telework Analytics International Inc. in Leesburg, Va., a telecommuting software provider. "Companies are so anxious to keep their telecommuting advantage that few seek publicity when they adopt the strategy."
But CIO Enterprise, ever true to its mission of helping business executives understand the strategic importance of IT, has dragged these secrets out of the dark. Here are the benefits of telecommuting that your competitors would rather keep under wraps:
If you're reading this from the comfort of your home office, we trust you agree with your company's strategy. Though a company car would be nice....
(For more on how to accrue the benefits of telework, see "Why Telework? " Jan. 15, 1998, CIO Section 2.)
9 Makes Cents
The road to retail profits is paved with the number nine. So says Mark Stiving, assistant Professor of Marketing at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, who collected data on more than 13,000 yogurt and tuna purchases to study how consumers read price tags when comparison shopping. Stiving set out to test three hypotheses on how consumers compare prices: first, consumers notice all digits; second, consumers never pay attention to the right-hand digit; and third, consumers notice the right-hand digit only if the left-hand digits of two prices are the same.
Stiving focused his study on yogurt and tuna, two of the most frequently purchased food items. The data (scanner panel data was supplied by ACNielsen Co. Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill., and Information Resources Inc. in Darien, Conn.) fit the third model, confirming that, in some cases, consumers skip the last digit in a price when they perform price comparisons. "Consumers don't use right-hand digits if the left-hand digits are different, but they do use right-hand digits if the left-hand digits are the same," Stiving explains. For example, let's say a price-conscious consumer has narrowed down her choice to two yogurt brands, Yoplait and Dannon. If Dannon is 63 cents and Yoplait is 55 cents, the consumer will buy the Yoplait without considering the right-hand digit. So Stiving's model says that retailers could raise the price of Yoplait to 59 cents, knowing that consumers will choose it because of its lower price, and make four extra pennies.
Stiving is doing similar studies in order to help retailers devise pricing strategies. This particular study helps explain why consumers see a lot of nines pop up on the checkout scanner. Retailers not only know the value of a few extra cents, they know the value of the number nine.
Burn, Baby, Burn
Attention everyone who has given up on the paperless office concept: If payroll providers-surely among the most paper-intensive businesses out there-can do it, so can you. Two payroll companies, Automatic Data Processing Inc. (ADP) in Roseland, N.J., and Interlogic Systems Inc. in Elkhart, Ind., have installed systems to put payroll reports, W-2 forms and the like on searchable CDs instead of paper.
In its quest for a cheaper and faster way of storing and retrieving the thousand-plus pages of customer reports the company generates each week, Interlogic Systems bought a Kodak PCD Writer to burn its information onto CDs. The CDs are then stored in a jukebox that holds up to 162 disks.
Those disks provide a hefty 100GB of storage capacity. Customers get their own copies of their reports on CD, and the library at Interlogic Systems is hooked up to the company network, allowing customer service reps to sift through their clients' records as necessary. "We're saving almost 70 pallets of paper a year," says Paul Lockhart of Interlogic Systems. With each pallet comprising 40 boxes and each box made up of a couple of thousand sheets, some trees are breathing a little bit easier.
Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? A recent survey by Chicago-based management consulting firm Diamond Technology Partners Inc. finds many CEOs suffer from a severe case of high-tech inertia. For these folks, technology seems to fall into the same category as annoying-but-important tasks like changing a car's oil: "I'll get the oil changed tomorrow.... We'll look into building an extranet next week."
"What the survey says is that CEOs are aware of technology and its potential impact," says Mel E. Bergstein, the chairman and CEO of Diamond. "However, they don't know how to approach the problem. There's a bit of paralysis."
Diamond conducted a mix of phone and in-person interviews with 430 senior executives last year. Bergstein says the findings show that while executives are making progress in understanding the strategic importance of technology, they still haven't taken decisive action in many cases. For example, 54 percent say future technology applications will support revenue growth rather than fulfill internal objectives such as cost-cutting. And 69 percent strongly agree that "information technology is redefining the marketplace in ways that can either up-set your company's plans or create new opportunities."
However, those same executives who talk the talk don't necessarily walk the walk. For example, 30 percent of the participants do not have a company Web site, and only a little more than one in four feels strongly that a Web site would help them enhance their corporate image.
Bergstein thinks that executives' foot-dragging on technology projects stems from a fear of making decisions without context. "Executives tended to look at IT investments in a static way and measure them in terms of things like ROI," he says. This approach works on internal projects, he notes, but once companies start building outward-facing technology such as extranets, "it's much less predictable what's going to happen." An executive who plans to spend several million on a new system does not want to encounter ambiguity about the business payback of that system.
Bergstein points out that those who wait to implement new technology until after the early adopters hammer out most of the problems are deceiving themselves. "Many companies have convinced themselves that they can be fast followers of a successful IT strategy, but in reality, they are ill-prepared to respond quickly," he says. Companies need to constantly experiment with new technical possibilities or they'll be left standing at the top of the mountain while their competitors scream down the slopes. "Companies that explore the learning curve are going to be the ones who build the capabilities to take advantage of new technologies," he says.
Take a look at your company's IT plans. If that noise you're hearing sounds a little rough, it may be time for your 3,000-mile checkup-or a new engine.
In Their Own Words
"Ten years from now if I give a speech, 'Living the Web Lifestyle,' people will laugh-just as they'd laugh if I said the 'phone lifestyle' today. They'd say, 'What kind of visionary is this guy?'"
In this Issue of CIO:
CIO Enterprise Magazine - February 15, 1998
CIO Enterprise Magazine - February 15, 1998