A fond farewell: Valuable lessons learned from 18 years in BIV’s High-Tech Office

Dumping new hardware or software on employees without budgeting for training is a waste of money and a cause of employee resentment

I’ve been writing Business in Vancouver’s High-Tech Office column since 1995. Along the way, I’ve come to a few realizations. Among them:

Change happens. That might seem obvious. In the time I’ve been writing, business technology has evolved from clumsy desktop computers to sleek notebooks and on to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. From standalone computers to systems connected to a local network to being always connected online. From business software like spreadsheets and word processors to business software like, well, spreadsheets and word processors; from Microsoft Office to (hmm) Microsoft Office.

So change happens – except when it doesn’t.

And if you believe what you read in the media, you might assume that change happens quickly. But that’s rarely the case. “Overnight” success typically takes four or five years. I first wrote about digital cameras around 1998; in 2002, when I travelled with one, people were impressed that it let us see photos I’d taken, deleting the ones that weren’t worth keeping. A year or two later, everybody had one.

Apple’s iPad (released in 2010) might seem like an exception, but touchscreen tablets date back to 2002 or so; Apple took an existing niche technology and fine-tuned it into what seemed to be a new product category.

And change isn’t necessarily universally welcomed. Last spring, Windows XP (released in 2001) was estimated to be running on 42% of “commercial” PCs, and there are estimates that when Microsoft drops XP support in 2014 it will still power more than 25% of Windows systems.

While 2009’s Windows 7 has proved popular with both home and business users, 2006’s Windows Vista failed to resonate with users. It’s too early to tell about Microsoft’s recent Windows 8 release, but so far it’s looking more like Vista.

And change – when it does (finally) occur – isn’t universal as those business systems still running Windows XP can attest. Even though a report claims that those aging XP systems can cost five times as much to manage and maintain than current systems, the cost and disruption of change can outweigh the promised benefits. Similarly, in 2010, Google Canada estimated that half of Canadian small businesses did not have a web presence.

Canadian businesses are often slower to adopt new technology than their U.S. counterparts – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; because Canadian businesses had waited to jump on the late-1990s Internet bandwagon they were much less affected by the 2000-01 dot-com meltdown.

Another cliché: Build it and they will come.

While a cute catchphrase from B.C. writer W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe made into the 1989 film Field of Dreams, in the high-tech office I’ve learned it simply isn’t true.

Instead, it should read: “Build it, then revise it and keep on plugging away at it.”

Part of the reason half of Canadian small businesses don’t have a website is that they understand that building a website is just the first step, and they’re too busy to take on yet another ongoing project. Similarly, dumping new hardware or software on employees without budgeting for training is a waste of money and a cause of employee resentment.

In 2009, I wrote about local video production company Base Two Media, which was gaining 75% of its new clients by using Google’s AdWords. The company attributed its success to the hour a day company co-founder Jeff Pelletier spent fine-tuning the ads’ wording and targeting. I suspect that the currently popular social media marketing can be effective – but only for companies prepared to commit to ongoing follow-through.

A last lesson learned: back up. High-tech office disasters, whether from equipment failure, malware, fire or theft, happen. The best insurance is having a reliable and up-to-date backup. Test it to ensure that the backups can be restored.

This is my last column for the High-Tech Office. Thanks to BIV and all my readers for their support over the years. I hope the column has been helpful. Feel free to check in with me at zisman.ca. •

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