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Details, details

Everybody knows the devil’s in the details. This certainly applies to computers, but despite the saying, you can carve out a competitive advantage by being vigilant and sweating the details.

Everybody knows the devil’s in the details. This certainly applies to computers, but despite the saying, you can carve out a competitive advantage by being vigilant and sweating the details.

Take popup ads. Not the ones that show up at a Web site, which we’ve been blocking for a long time (right?), but the popup window ads with a grey background and a window title that usually has “Messenger” in it. I used to see them about once a week but lately it’s up to several per hour. The last one I saw was an ad for software to turn off popups (the last straw for me). Each window covers your work and has to be cleared with a deliberate click. Plus, I worry that if the spammers can do this, what else can they do?

Nothing, as it turns out. Windows has a “service” called Messenger that can be used on a network to send messages from one computer to another (and nothing more). This should not be confused with Windows Instant Messaging (IM). Messenger is installed and operational by default on Windows 2000 and XP. I doubt that many people even know this service exists; it’s largely a network administrator’s tool. Except now, the spammers have caught on to it. If company policy doesn’t require Messenger to be enabled, it’s only a minor menu hunt to turn it off. Go to the Control Panel, select Administrative Tools, select Services, then locate Messenger, right click on it to get to Properties and disable the startup of the service. It can just as easily be turned back on if necessary.

Like so much on a computer, this little fix is easy if you know how to do it. But usually you don’t know how, and that means when the irritation level is high enough, you spend the time searching the Web or contacting some other source for the fix. That doesn’t take long either–again, if you know how. And so it goes for most of the details involved with using computers.

The fact that it became necessary to deal with these miserable popup intrusions into my working day got me thinking: How much time do I spend fixing these and other annoyances on my computer? How many hours are burned doing computer housekeeping chores for hardware and software? Conversely, what’s the cost of not doing these things?

Ah, the housekeeping chores–now, there’s a source of devilish details. Thanks to the Internet, the list of housekeeping chores and maintenance details is longer than ever. Here are a few items off the top of my head:

— Check for newest version of applications. Make sure your antivirus software is current, and active, and perform any housekeeping chores it requires.

— Ditto for the firewall software.

— Ditto for spyware detection software.

— Perform image backup of the hard disk in case of computer crash.

— Perform backup of all user data.

— Perform backup of specific applications.

— Archive data for specific applications (such as Microsoft Outlook).

— Apply security and other patches to operating system and other applications.

— Defragment the hard disk.

— Periodically delete old e-mail and data files.

— Top up printer consumables, such as ink and paper.

— Periodically clean the computer gear (inside and out).

Does anybody do all of this? Does anyone do it faithfully? Personally, I’m attentive to the details of my computer (I believe the description is lengthened to “anal-retentive” in the vernacular). I feel like a woodsman keeping his saws sharp, because the computer is the tool of my livelihood and I intend to keep it ready. However, not everybody is motivated to spend hours a month performing computer prophylaxis. More likely, if you asked 10 employees at an average business how often they back up their data, or check for viruses, or defrag the hard drive (and so on), you’d probably get a blank stare from at least six of them.

This may not be surprising, but it is scary. It’s scary because paying attention to procedural and housekeeping details is important–ignore them and, at best, productivity will suffer. For those who ignore or forget entreaties like “never open an email attachment unless you’re absolutely sure it’s safe” or “always back up your work,” real damage can be done to people’s data or even their computer.

The situation can be summarized in three points:

1. Computers and software are still not as reliable or easy to use as they should be; in fact, computing is a risky environment.

2. Users, even with good intentions, have limits on the time they’ll spend to make computers or software operate properly.

3. All companies have difficulty keeping up with the demands of managing 1 and 2 above.

A hard-nosed reply to all this is, “Yeah, so what?” In other words, this is not exactly news, and worse, what can anybody do about it? Well, to quote the accidental philosopher, Yogi Berra, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.”

Is it easier to convince 20 people to take care of their computers than it is to convince a thousand people? If you think the answer is yes, then you understand the advantage a smaller business may have over a larger one when it comes to getting the biggest return on investment from routine computing.

In a world where inattention to the details of running a computer invites hassle, lost time, and even disaster, a relatively small effort can have measurable payback (presuming, of course, that you keep track of things like downtime).

I would argue that smaller companies have a much better chance of checking each computer and training each user. Bigger companies hire specialists (such as an IT department); this is costly and not necessarily effective. Smaller companies may not be able to hire specialists, but they can address the issues of computer maintenance and user training in ways that are not realistic in larger companies: for instance, formal or informal user groups that encourage employees to coach each other; or support for an office guru whose expertise has immediate impact. We all know that small can mean more agile and responsive, and when it comes to sweating the details of computing–in today’s environment–this can be an advantage.

It’s fashionable to whine about spam, hackers, virus attacks, software patches, clumsy user interfaces, and lost data (as I have just done). But global solutions are lacking. Even the collective pressure of all businesses (big and small) hasn’t been able to wring reliability and ease of use out of the computer industry. The best one can say is that the curve of improvement is a gentle slope that’s subject to dips.

Likewise, the goal of 100-percent properly maintained computers and trained users is not very realistic. However, there’s an edge to be had in this particular part of the problem. I’d argue that compared to attempting to cherry-pick the latest and greatest technology–which is something big companies can probably do better–smaller companies are superior at maximizing the day-in, day-out use of their computers. This is a mental game that small-business management can win; the will to address the details of computer maintenance and user training can be a distinct advantage.

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