inside/out: Strategic Stretching

The annual event was always a tense one. The occasion: a one-on-one meeting to receive my annual sales quota. Inevitably it seemed huge, and the manager would admit that it was a "big number" but that it was important for me to "stretch" a little. The same feeling of dread and challenge occurred each time our family moved into a new home, which we did (courtesy of IBM) six times. Each event involved a mortgage bigger than life and made me "stretch" a little harder to pay for it.

Reflecting back, however, "stretching" is good. It ought to be a part of business planning, too. 1999 will take on a surreal atmosphere as we struggle to be sure we are ready for January 1, 2000. Despite the attention that most IT professionals will have to give to Y2K, it is even more important to look beyond the "event" and its aftermath, to do some longer range planning. Here are a couple of "stretch" suggestions for your consideration.

Most worthy of creative thought is how to use the World Wide Web and the Internet profitably. Having gotten over the thrill of retrieving information from anywhere and the ease with which virtual networks can be established, now it is time to find new ways to use this capability.

One thing for sure, the Web levels the playing field. It's the "great enabler" because it lets small companies seem bigger than they are. At the same time, small companies should note that bigger competitors can use the Web to treat their thousands of customers more personally, i.e. it makes big companies seem smaller, too. All of this boils down to providing better customer service, which is often the only differentiation in our commodity-centered world.

It used to be that customer service was associated with the personal touch only another human could give. But stepping back a bit, we can see that providing good customer service in most cases simply involves making high quality information readily available to people who need it, whether they are customers, dealers, or even vendors. The Internet can do this. The challenge is to find an economical way to integrate its capabilities with your own information system.

Also the issue of security, which the popular press has overblown, must be properly addressed. Security solutions exist and their use will become a normal part of Web application design. Therefore the matter should not be allowed to get in the way of a favorable decision on an Internet application. Before moving too fast, though, some well-designed market research may help guide your plans for the application. Determine what customers really want, how valuable it is to them, and what costs and benefits are associated with giving it to them.

Another area worthy of consideration while your company endures 1999, is taking a new look at production planning. Some businesses have pretty steady workflow because of fairly predictable product sales. Others, however, are more affected by rush orders, late changes, and customization. To stay competitive they must constantly juggle production to achieve a balance between accepting an order that disrupts planned production and rejecting it in favor of sticking to the plan.

A Du Pont scientist, Les Shipman, and three of his colleagues, have developed statistical methods that, the Wall Street Journal reports, "were able to predict the size and timing of future [carpet manufacturing] orders (much as the airlines take account of every single reservation in revising the proportion of discounted seats on any given flight)."

The program runs on a PC each night and recommends each morning, which of the mill's 4,000 products should be added to the production schedule that day. The idea is to produce products based on a statistical forecast not on orders received. The results are reported to be highly favorable. These scientists have formed a company, Shipman Enterprises, based in Wilmington, Del. to spread the idea to others. Rethinking our approach to production planning -- a methodology we often assume cannot be improved upon -- is also a good mind "stretcher."

No matter how rough and busy 1999 becomes, there are plenty of "tomorrows" to follow. Next year issues du jour will, for the most part, orbit around Y2K and solving day-to-day IS operating problems. But if you can stand up on tip toes and stretch to see beyond January 1, 2000, you may discover strategies that will mean a lot more to your company than checking every last report-generating program for millennium compliance. Have a great 1999!

After 18 years in marketing and sales at IBM, Bob Diefenbacher founded Denbrook Systems Associates, an IT consulting firm based in Malvern, Pa.