In the beginning, people always make use of a new technology by simply swapping their old machines out for new ones. When the personal computer first appeared in offices more than 20 years ago, managers used them as souped-up typewriters.

Today, workstations do more than spit out words. They connect people with company data, communication tools, and in some cases, work automation systems.

In order to make technology pay, companies often have to redesign their processes. Such is the case with the current wave of automation systems, technologies which may streamline any of your business functions (e.g., accounting, distribution, manufacturing, operations, human resources and sales).

Implementing such a system begins with an understanding of your current level of computer sophistication.

In this column, I will help you to assess the level at which you are currently using computers and computer software and the level at which you have re-engineered your business processes.

Typically, entrepreneurs at early-stage companies have purchased computers for most of their employees and might have purchased a network server.

Unfortunately, their employees use the computers as replacements for adding machines. Their business processes using the computers are essentially the same as they would be without the computers.

This situation usually occurs due to a lack of understanding of the capabilities that computers possess. It is also due to a lack of training at all levels of the organization.

A tell-tale sign of this level of computer usage is what I call the "spreadsheet syndrome."

Spreadsheets are awesome tools. Unfortunately, in many organizations they are used in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.

I have seen situations in which four or five employees enter the same data into different spreadsheets for different purposes, resulting in inefficiencies and increased risk of error.

I have also seen situations in which spreadsheets are used to create invoices. The invoices are printed and then handed to the accountant who manually enters them into the accounting system. Then the invoice clerk deletes the invoice data in the spreadsheet so it can be used for the next period.

Most entrepreneurs at mid-stage companies have purchased computers, set up a network, implemented a multi-user accounting system, and, maybe, implemented an internal e-mail system.

They have started to build a good electronic infrastructure. Unfortunately, they have not fully re-engineered their business processes and have not fully automated their operational systems.


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