Wireless Dreams

BOSTON (05/23/2000) - It's hard to predict which technologies will truly change the way we work, dramatically improve productivity or otherwise radically affect the human condition. That's because we think deductively:

Define a problem, then find a solution. Forecasting the real impact of technology requires inductive thinking: Recognize a new technology's potential, and then find a problem it might solve.

We often see a new technology as a new version of something that already exists. The automobile was first seen as an extension of the horse-drawn carriage. Xerography was seen as an extension of carbon paper. Even the Internet was originally seen as an extension of the local-area network. Their eventual epic impacts on our lives was unforeseen.

Such is now the case with wireless technologies. The cell phone, for example, was first seen as an extension of the telephone. When I think of wireless, three images come to mind: French waiters, a banal TV ad and Peter Drucker.

My first experience with wireless came before the cell phone explosion, when I watched a French waiter use a portable device to approve a credit-card charge without leaving my table. I was impressed, but the French have often led in the application of IT. This early wireless use was a response to a known problem:

Many Europeans have a phobia about letting credit cards out of their sight.

A more recent image of wireless comes from a recent TV ad: A group of thirtysomethings is seen riding down a beach in an open convertible, sending information to a prospective customer over some sort of wireless device. A response arrives, telling them that they have just won the deal, beating out older competitors, who are pictured sitting in an office, challenged by their organization's inability to respond to the prospect in a timely fashion. Too late - the kids win, and life's just a beach. The ad trivializes what's possible with wireless technology (while suggesting that success is a function of generational difference).

The reason we're challenged to find new, more powerful applications for technology is that we see the world and technology through our current work and management processes. As the TV ad illustrates, a prospective customer's request for proposals brings the same response - only delivered a bit faster through wireless technology. We don't see how a new technology might change, or even eliminate, proposal processes. Today, combinations of technologies - the Internet, data warehousing and wireless, for example - have the power to create whole new business models such as the industry-sponsored digital marketplaces now being formed in the automobile business.

So, how should we start to think inductively about wireless? Management guru Peter Drucker may have pointed the way to the wireless world when he first used the expression "manage by walking around." What he meant was that managers could learn more by meeting and talking with customers and noncustomers alike.

Imagine, for a moment, a manager - or a salesperson - who works outside an office, enabled by a truly powerful intelligent agent. Some of the rules and behaviors of business could be broken. One is that all employees need offices.

Another is that the way you do business should be governed by the limitations of systems. A communications device, combined with access to rich information and timely human decision-making, can change rigid business rules. Product information becomes immediately available, price quotes are dynamically tailored to a customer's needs and delivery is accelerated as time is further compressed across all fulfillment processes.

At the behavioral level, it might now be easier to let more people get out of the office to spend time with customers, where they can do real work. The power of human potential might also be restored.

Dream on, you say? That's part of inductive thinking.

Champy is chairman of consulting at Perot Systems Corp. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He can be reached at JimChampy@ps.net. His newspaper columns are syndicated by Tribune Media Services.

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