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In the Beginning ....


In the beginning, there was a black rotary telephone, a mechanical adding machine, a manual typewriter and the U.S. mail.

Today, the utilitarian rotary phone has morphed into portable phones, mobile phones, pagers, fax machines ... world-wide direct dial, universal phone numbers and voice mail.

The adding machine and typewriter have been united into a personal desktop computer, complete with spreadsheet, financial, word processing and page layout software (plus games, of course), with the computer generating product via a laser or color printer or a fax/modem.

Faced with competition from Federal Express, Emery and others, the Post Office added Express Mail and Priority Mail. When immediacy is key, however, these delivery forms cannot compete with faxes or even courier services. Often fax services are also less expensive.

Consider these technological changes:

  • For the past 20 years, every 18 months the power embedded in computer chips has doubled. If Detroit had achieved the same price-performance ratio, our cars would travel at supersonic speeds, be as luxurious as a Rolls Royce and cost less than a big-city downtown parking space for a day.

  • The rapid demand for new telephone numbers to service fax machines, modems, pagers and mobile phones has led to a proliferation of new area codes throughout the country. Every major metropolitan area has been forced to add new area codes in order to service demand. Hence the rise in the so-called universal number, which can find its owner anytime, anywhere, just so long as the owner keeps the programming congruent with the daily schedule.

Conduct a technology assessment

So what's today's association to do? Dive in, knowing the replacement for today's technology is already in the R&D pipeline? Or wait until the rate of change slows?

The first step is to assess the state of the association's office technology as well as that of its members. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do your members regularly request routine types of information from the association? If so, consider adding a fax-on-demand service. This is particularly useful for large organizations composed of individual members. Types of information could include membership information and application; a list of elected leaders; details and registration materials for upcoming conferences or educational events; or a copy of the latest newsletter.

    Depending on your budget and the geographic spread of your members, you can decide whether a 1-800 or a toll-call is the better option for those requesting information. In either case, the association's principle expense will be with the outgoing call that services the request. Generally, however, this is less than the cost of a letter. Moreover, you are now offering 24-hour service to your members.

    You can contract with a service like PR Newswire or Business Wire or you can do-it-yourself. There are several software programs developed for in-house fax-back services, ranging from the very simple to very complex.

  • Does your staff attend lots of meetings, making telephone tag a sad fact of life? If so, consider adding voice mail. Like fax-on-demand, voice mail can be contracted out through US West or a third party company ... or it can be managed in-house with a computer and appropriate software.

    Many associations are leery of instituting voice mail because they want to make sure a "real" person connects with every call. Voice mail systems do not have to be completely automated. A staff person can ask the member, "Would you like me to take a message or would you like to leave a voice-mail message?" This places the control in the hands of the member and allows for far more complex messages than otherwise possible. Moreover, staff members can easily phone in and retrieve messages from the road.

    Alternatively, consider pagers and/or mobile phones for staff members who routinely spend large amounts of time out of the office. Today's mobile phones are inexpensively priced, and discounted purchasing plans are available for associations.

  • When did your organization last update its computer systems ... and what are the primary uses of the computers in the office? If it has been more than three years since you updated, and you use your computers as more than glorified typewriters, it's time to budget for an upgrade.

    If ease of use and longevity are important to you, consider a Macintosh. In addition to being true plug-and-play, Macs cost at least 25 percent less to support than Intel machines running Windows, according to a Gartner Group Study. Gartner also determined that integrating Macs into a Windows environment does not increase support costs. Moreover, Macs can read files from DOS disks and, after they have been edited, save the new file back into the DOS format. Finally, whereas my 1989 vintage Intel-DOS-Windows machine is basically obsolete, 1989 vintage Macs can be used quite nicely as Internet servers!

    If you have modems, and they are 9600 baud or less, go ahead and buy 28.8 modems. If you have no modems, and plan on using the Internet for research or for communicating with members, go ahead and buy a 28.8 modem. The price difference between 14.4 baud and 28.8 baud is not that great, but the time saved waiting for files to dowload can be.

There's no such thing as standing still

The rate of technological change is not going to slow. When a new device enters the market - whether it is a printer, mobile phone, wrist pager or computer - its replacement is in the final stages of research and development. And two or three more generations are already in the works.

The key is assessing organization needs. But to do so, it's also necessary to know just what technology can do to simplify operations or reduce costs. That means a crash course, or placing faith in a salesman, or hiring an outside consultant to conduct the needs assessment and make recommendations.

Remember. No one asked for a self-cleaning oven ... until a researcher figured out how to create one and convinced marketing that the demand would follow. What we don't know can limit our choices and our opportunities.

circa 1st quarter 1996


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Copyright Kathy E. Gill, 1996 and 1997. Comments?

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