From the June 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

The Tech Tamer

Feel overwhelmed by technology? Following three si

Brian J. Nichelson runs a consulting firm out of Houston called TechMatters Institute, which helps companies deal with introducing new technologies into their operations. He has also published Taming Technology: You Can Control the Beast, which condenses his approach into a book he says "was designed to be read on a round-trip business flight." While the book may not constitute a big investment, putting Nichelson's principles into practice can yield great benefits to advisors of all stripes, since they allow you to understand and use technology more effectively in your business and personal lives. And if you're a technophobe, Nichelson gives you practical steps for getting over it. A former Air Force officer, ExxonMobil researcher, and student of the history of technology, Nichelson spoke to IA Editor Jamie Green in early May.

The businesses you consult with, are they of one kind or size? I look for three kinds of cases where my skills are needed. The first is when companies are implementing new technology, to [help them] do it more effectively, since when you implement there's always a drop in productivity. The second would be when companies have technology that they feel is underused. The third case is when software developers are creating their applications. I help them [develop] better tools for learning and using the technology.

Software companies can benefit by taking a close look at what support tools they provide to the user on the job. People are realizing more and more that the old model of sending people for training up-front, then giving them a manual to take back to work, is not effective. You only retain 10% to 30% of that training, and afterward you struggle to find [citations] in the manual, and then [the actions] don't work like they did for the instructor. So we need to do a better job on these "learning support systems." Those systems can be tutorials, overviews, or even allow an expert user to record a specific task, and the user can play it back to learn how to do it.

Some of our readers are sole practitioners, others are broker/dealer reps or wirehouse brokers who are forced to use certain types of technology. But all have to coordinate systems from outside vendors with their existing software. So part of their challenge is to coordinate those systems, often without much in the way of tech support. Running through my maxims should provide some help in this area.

The first maxim is that Technology is simpler than you think. We can educate ourselves in a simple, straightforward manner without having to go to night school. We also need to know the basics of how a computer works. Go to some of the sites I mention on my Web site (try the Technology in Focus page of www.techmattersinstitute.com) or in my book, like www.howstuffworks.com, or www.pcmag.com. There's some great stuff there to help people get up to speed. And then there's the specifics: take the software you want to learn about, find out where it comes from, what its real purpose is, what its strengths and weaknesses are. Then stay current: join a user group or sign up for the vendor's electronic user newsletter

The second maxim is Technology equals people. People are behind the technology we use: they design it, they use it, and they fix it. We need to find those people and learn how to communicate with them. And if they're not communicating effectively, we need to tell them so we can understand what they're saying. It's amazing what you can accomplish by relying on empathy and compassion to get people to help you. Sometimes we think technology is dumped in front of us, that it's an anonymous, frustrating wall we can't break through. But we can. There are people behind it that we can get to.

What's the approach you advocate in talking to the people behind the technology? Explain in human terms what the problem is, relate to them on a personal level, and get them to understand. They've all been there themselves, and if you get a [customer service] rep that's a little surly, don't be afraid to ask for another one.

The third maxim? Technology is interconnected. Whatever you're using, you have to see the big picture; you have to see the context. If a company is buying a new piece of software, you have to make sure it will link up to the existing databases, that you can import and export data to other applications. When you roll it out, make sure people know why you're rolling it out. If the context is not communicated, the end user will have to figure it out for himself, and the software will be underutilized or people will find workarounds.

Sometimes workarounds are a smart way to handle troublesome software, right? Yes, if it's saving you time, and money, and energy. But the fact that you have to use a workaround means that somebody upstream of us in time and space messed up. So it's desirable to avoid workarounds.

And there should be tutorials showing you how to accomplish a given function without a workaround, but unfortunately, sometimes there isn't. That comes back to the fact that a poor choice was made [originally in picking the software], especially if it's a function that is vital to the business and is used often. That's where these maxims [apply], in both the process of choosing a technology and procuring it, and in using it.

We did a survey that found that our readers rely on themselves to stay current in technology, whether they're a sole practitioner or part of a big network. But they're also frustrated; they don't have time to stay current. I address those issues in the book. In chapter three, I show people how they can keep up to speed. Some of those sources might be other people who could help you--other advisors, for instance, or online forums or chat rooms at software vendors' support sites, where you can see what kinds of issues there are with the software. That's where you can find people you can contact off-line, for example, and that's assuming there isn't someone down the street from you using the same software; talk to them for a half hour and you'll learn plenty. Much of this process is seat-of-the-pants.

But you should set up a steady strategy to keep up with the technologies in your life, because if you wait until you're ready to buy something, you'll have a lot of catching up to do. Bookmark sources, to use the Web browser analogy, not just on the Web, but in your local library, determine what magazines there are that you could just skim once every couple of months for those areas of technology you need to stay current in, like Consumer Reports, or magazines with software reviews.

That sounds nice, but our readers are already so stretched. Yes, it's a matter of setting priorities. I detail in the book some irregular techniques you can use to stay up to date as well.

There's a trend in the advisory business: an increased use of technology, along with a greater interest in providing highly customized, highly personalized services. That's one of the interesting things about this industry, and I see a parallel in the health care industry as well. You have to deal with people very closely and personally, yet you must rely on technology to do your job, so you're being asked to cover the whole waterfront. That's why I like to provide efficient steps that will help people [cope] for only a little bit of an up-front investment.

Taming Technology: You Can Control the Beast is available through the IA Bookstore at www.investmentadvisor.com.

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