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10 tips for laptop literacy.

Wondering how to pick the best portable computer and the best way to use it? These guidelines will help you get down to business with your laptop.

Recently, I conducted a data base search on the boom in the number of executives using notebook computers. Out of more than 400 articles, I found only four that even mentioned the word CFO, and two of those references merely cited the CFOs of computer manufacturers. Apparently, the computer press thinks financial executives aren't especially relevant to this technology wave. But whether you already have a portable or are thinking about getting one, or you want to know how your company can buy and use them effectively, you probably could use some help in choosing among the hundreds of products available.

Nearly a quarter of all personal computers that will be sold this year are likely to be laptops or notebooks. Handheld models are selling even faster -- soon they may be cheaper than multifunction calculators. The selection is staggering. Not since the first big wave of personal computers hit the market have we had so many choices. The noise is amplified by all the vendors trying to stand out in a new multibillion-dollar market.

Voice input? No problem! Want one that reads your handwriting -- you've got it! All the models are much faster and have more memory than some of the mini-computers we bought as recently as five years ago. This is personal computing with a capital "P." The portable computer is fast becoming a symbol of executive status, somewhere in between an expensive pen and a company car.


That's because executives are responding to an enormous and almost invisible shift in corporate culture. Reengineering is driving us all to rethink our roles. Survivors in downsized organizations need faster responses and more control with fewer helpers. This means more computers for all of us. Laptops symbolize a changing business reality in which computers can become indispensable work aids.

As a financial executive, you deserve any technology that makes you more productive, even though you're not getting paid to pound a keyboard. However, while notebooks individually may be a bargain, they do add up to a serious investment in the aggregate. In fact, we're looking at real costs of $5,000 to $10,000 for each executive. Spending that much is worth some thought, so here are some guidelines to purchasing and managing portables.

1 Don't start from scratch. Check corporate policies on personal computers to see whether they cover laptops. Tap your information-systems personnel for information on help and resources, and ask about potential problems. The IS department is probably already supplying laptops for programmers working at home. Don't assume, however, that this means the laptops are oriented to executive users.

2 Keep the hardware in perspective. Almost all the products out there are terrific values, but none are perfect. Battery life, weight, keyboard feel and screen brightness and resolution are physical properties you can check in a couple of minutes. Virtually all laptops, whether they're IBM compatibles or Apple Macintoshes, suffice for most user needs.

Start by taking a good look at your memory storage needs. Laptops come with plenty of random-access memory for ordinary use. Today's 80- or 120-meg hard drives are far more than most executives need in the near term, and 3.5-inch floppy disks will load almost all programs or files. If someone wants more than the standard offerings, you can add a great deal -- but it's fair to insist on knowing why.

3 Know your communications access. A fax modem is a good item to have because it's cheap and you'll probably use it someday, but it won't guarantee you access to your local-area network or mainframe. Find out whether you can dial in or need to create dial-in capability at the office. Or you may want network access built into your portable so you can bring it into the office and plug into your data bases. Remember, if you just want to bring work home and then put it back into your office personal computer the next day, a floppy disk is fine. You may have good security reasons for not wanting to be linked directly to the office network.

4 Buy only the software you use. Every portable computer should start with the software and information the user wants and should be equipped with easy-to-use windows or menus to get it. Make sure the spreadsheet and word processing on the laptop is the same version used in the office and can exchange information freely with office software. Laptops are not a good excuse to add new flavors of basic software, even if the software comes bundled with the computer. If it's different from company standard software, you should know why and should be prepared for the costs of training and converting data between programs.

5 Use only the software you buy. Users tend to think it's okay to copy anything to their laptops from their personal computers. However, most software licenses and company policies specify if and how you can copy without breaking the law. To be safe, inform each new user of company policy. You don't want your corporation to be the next highly publicized case for the Software Publishers Association. Swapping software on laptops is also a major vector of computer viruses.

6 Budget some training courses with each new computer. The easiest way to waste a computer is to forget how to use it. A few hours of personal coaching will keep you far up the learning curve. It's best to have a re-orientation at delivery and a refresher course after several weeks. Get a coach who's good at making executives comfortable with learning. Personality is much more important than advanced technical skills for this role.

7 Insist on visible use and learning. Every executive user is an ambassador for responsible use. Let people know who's taking work home and trying to extend corporate computing. Make sure executives (including you) are really using the tools for company work. Otherwise, you could end up with a backlog of potential users who legitimately resent someone making a toy out of a tool they want to employ, not to mention the personal tax issues.

Also, too many executives with new portables want to jump out of their phone booths like Superman and show how quickly they've mastered the technology. It's important for everyone to see executives (including financial executives) learn the hard way, because this is a change in corporate culture, not just skill.

8 Insist on safe practices. Very few companies have rethought their security policies to account for top executives using portable personal computers. Your IS department should have guidelines for backing up and authenticating data, protecting against viruses and ensuring information security. Today, a thousand-dollar personal computer can easily carry millions of dollars of trade secrets. Executive users have enormous direct exposure because they have access to so much information, and they represent even greater indirect exposure by example.

9 Consider shared use. You may want to introduce portables by making a few laptops available for traveling executives or for someone who will be out for a few days. It's a good way to let people try before they buy, and it also helps eliminate people who are not serious about using laptops. But don't let a shared computer stand in the way of getting committed users portables they can call their own.

10 Plan to support work away from the office. The computer is a good tool for helping people away from the office feel in the loop. Electronic mail, access to public networks and data bases and mailboxes for sending notes back and forth via fax all go a long way to supporting you when you're away from the office.

Perhaps the best advice of all is to check and validate the work you do away from the office just as you would any other work. This is especially true when crunch times mean long hours in the office and at home. The portable gives us the independence to finish our work when we don't have a lot of help. But we all need help to catch the mistakes we make at two in the morning.

Mr. Dell is director of corporate finance at F.N. Wolf & Co. in New York. He's also a technical advisor to FEI's Committee on Information Management.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Financial Executives International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:The CFO's Guide to Information Management: Portable Computers
Author:Dell, David J.
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Slaying the paper dragon.
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