In 1990, millions of office workers began playing a mind-numbing card game on their personal computers. Packaged with a hot-selling new version of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows program, Solitaire proved so distracting that Boeing Co. and other companies removed it from all their PCs. "It sure blew peoples' productivity," admits Wes Cherry, the Microsoft programmer who developed it. But then a funny thing happened: When useful applications for Windows arrived, workers had already mastered clicking and dragging on-screen objects--skills honed with Solitaire. Recently, the game won an industry award for its "foresight" in getting people to use mouse pointing devices.
The Solitaire episode illustrates a lesson that Corporate America learned the hard way in the 1980s: No matter how powerful the computer or how far-reaching the information network, it means little if the average office worker can't use it. Improved software is key to making information technology accessible and businesses more productive. Compared with workers using ordinary software, those using a "graphical user interface" such as on Windows or Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh can accomplish twice as much in a given time, according to the Center for Advanced Technologies, a Fairfax (Va.) research lab run by American Management Systems Inc., a computer-services company.
The graphical interface is just one example of software technology that can boost productivity. Equally dramatic results stem from networking programs, imaging technology, and relational data-base systems. And just on the horizon are potentially huge gains from innovations such as object-oriented programming, a method for creating intuitive software out of prefabricated "objects" that behave like objects in the real world.
In terms of increasing productivity, networking may be the most important shift. Some 60% of all business PCs in the U.S. are now able to trade files, documents, and electronic mail with others on a network, up from 35% in 1990. Using the software correctly, workers on a network can do in a day what would otherwise take them five, says G. Michael Ashmore, a vice-president at CSC Index Inc., a Cambridge (Mass.) consulting firm.
Indeed, networking software can be instrumental in reengineering work processes by delivering information directly to the workers on the front lines. That helps break down the old corporate pyramids. "Networking fits the new management model," says Craig Burton, a former Novell Inc. executive who heads the Burton Group, a Salt Lake City research firm. He believes that groupware programs, such as Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes, will take the technology even further, allowing co-workers to pool information more intelligently.
SLICE AND DICE. Other productivity boosters include imaging and work-flow software. In essence, these technologies reduce paper to digitized images so documents zip through the organization instantly, rather than from in-basket to in-basket. That can increase productivity by 20% to 60% in a bank or other paper-intensive business, says Michael Howard, a consultant at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. And thanks to powerful new PCs, he says, the cost per worker for an imaging system has dropped from $25,000 to $10,000 since 1990.
New data-base programs also increase efficiency. Oracle Systems, Sybase, Informix, and others sell so-called relational data bases that put information in a format flexible enough for non-programmers to slice and dice. This has changed the face of retailing: A relational data base lets a chain know when to send more yellow sweaters to which stores--and when to shift to blue.
In the future, software will be even easier to create and use, thanks to object-oriented programming. At the Center for Advanced Technologies, individual programmers are achieving 100% leaps in productivity via such methods, says Jerrold M. Groshow, the lab's director. But the larger payoff, he says, will come when groups of 100 or more programmers learn to share objects: yet another technology that promises to help people collaborate better. Even for programmers, Solitaire won't suffice in the age of network computing.