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Room At The Top

Loyal Chief Executive readers will remember my “Millennium Masterclass” column earlier this year, which surveyed CEO computer users. In May, …

Loyal Chief Executive readers will remember my “Millennium Masterclass” column earlier this year, which surveyed CEO computer users. In May, we saw a sneak preview of some of the results, but now all of the replies are in, and we can proceed with the final analysis.

Perhaps Bill Gates being named 1994 Chief Executive of the Year for selling more computer software than anyone else is no coincidence. It looks as if CEOs are coming to grips with the information-technology revolution. Ninety percent of the respondents have a PC or terminal in their offices, and of these, 88 percent used the gadget the day they filled out the survey. It’s gratifying to learn that the era of the PC as a CEO paperweight is passe. Not only that, but 88 percent of those with an office facility also have a home/portable facility. This is the 1990s equivalent of the two-cars-per-family statement. When I was young, the vogue was timesharing-one computer, many people.

Now it’s clearly the other way around. If we include the microprocessors in the car, the lawnmower, and the toilet cistern, the average CEO now owns more CPU power than the contents of Fermilab in 1975. This may not make our businesses more effective, but it may explain why it took so darned long to discover the omega minus particle.

Of those who don’t use a computer personally, apart from the memorable “I don’t compute-I think” and “Can’t turn it on” replies already published, one respondent said, “Cannot see a need or benefit,” while another admitted, “No previous need, but E-mail and EIS will force me to have one.” Cheer up, you Luddites; your time will come. Now for the meatier questions.

The eight most useful CEO applications (in this order): Internal E-mail; word processing; spreadsheets; executive information for past results; executive information for forecasts; internal discussion groups; competitor/press information; Email with outsiders.

This is so exciting. The E-mail and word-processing enthusiasts obviously have managed to supplant their secretaries, while the spreadsheet addicts are still furiously balancing their checkbooks.

The three most significant benefits from E-mail: Answering it at a time that best suits me; breaking through company levels to tap the best ideas; communicating effectively independent of distance.

Democracy clearly allies itself with technology here.Hands up, all those without a Silicon Suggestions Box.

The two major benefits of executive information: A clearer view of the likely future performance of my sub sidiaries; a deeper insight into their past results.

That’s a bit of luck, since these possibilities are probably logically exhaustive. There’s clearly no truth to the rumor that EIS spells “End In Sight.”

The two key advantages of external newsline services: Kept up with industry news more effectively than via press cuttings; developed a better understanding of international markets.

Dump those stocks of scissor manufacturers right now; tomorrow has arrived early.

The two main impacts of IT on my personal activity: A major opportunity for me to rethink my own personal productivity; an area in which I should lead others by example. But not into the jaws of death, presumably?

The three activities for which I would most like to use a computer: Scheduling projects and communications; personal investment; strategic planning.

Other comments: Better user interface is needed; we haven’t even begun to tap the potential of executive IT. Well, obviously not.

What does all this tell us about computers and the CEO? Regretfully, I must drop any claim to statistical reliability in the above responses; the numbers involved just don’t allow for extrapolation.

That said, a clear strand of rueful apology runs through many of the replies. There is a sense of a missed opportunity; of a lot of catching up to do; of a new scheme of things rapidly emerging that for some will not be accessible before retirement.

Earlier this year, I spent an afternoon with the CFO of a large advertising group, who had just taken delivery of a shiny new Compaq computer with all the bells and many of the whistles. Under my watchful and curious eye, he played with the installed icons on the screen-mouse accelerator, clock, and card game-and then after a few minutes, he said:

“OK. I get the picture. Now, how do I make money using this thing?”

There is room at the top for the executive computer, but changes must be made on both sides. Vendors and application developers need to understand that most CEOs have neither the time nor the interest to devote to a complex computer system. For their part, CEOs need to understand the resounding opinion from those who have persevered and succeeded: “Information technology

is an area in which I should lead others Al by example.”

We have some way to go, then, before we aspire to the role of a New Yorker cartoon’s technophile chief executive on the way out of his office:

“Put the company on autopilot, Gladys; I’m going out to lunch.”

Robert Bittlestone is founder and chief executive of Metapraxis, a London and New York-based consulting group specializing in performance measurement and strategic control.

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