ComputerWord Article Appropriate Technology

The missing buzzword: Appropriate
Allan E. Alter


I hate buzzwords. They're misleading, they're tiresome, they make something big out of nothing much. But there is one word that I'd like to hear much more of: Appropriate. I hear earfuls about leading bleeding-edge, value-added, value-driven total business solutions. But no one talks about appropriate technology.


Appropriate -- now that's a word we can use. It means remembering that information technology is only a tool, not a solution. Appropriate technology is the right tool for the job -- it gets the job done, does it simply and doesn't waste time, money, resources or effort.

It means not being a slave to technology fashion and saying no to solutions looking for problems. It means using older technologies that are sound and sufficient and avoiding technical solutions when simplifying a business process will do. It means being alert to the nasty side effects technology can have -- and dodging them.

The people at USAA understand appropriate. The San Antonio financial company doesn't have a public World Wide Web site. That's not reactionary -- that's smart. The company sells insurance only to military officers and their families, and it already knows how to reach its market. Why build a site that would only frustrate most surfers, telling them they can't buy insurance from USAA? So USAA passed up the first wave of Web sites. But now that tools have evolved, the company is building a site that will provide service for existing customers. USAA held off on Web-based commerce until it could do some real good for its customers.

That's using technology appropriately.

Williams Technologies, a company that remanufactures car transmissions, understood appropriate when it built a simple MS-DOS-based system that helps factory workers assemble transmissions more quickly and accurately. Computers on the assembly line show workers how to assemble parts with step-by-step instructions and pictures. The system helped quadruple sales and is so simple, a lone IS professional and a few factory workers built the pilot in seven months for $27,000.

I wish the airlines understood appropriate. Their voice-mail menus are long and confusing; it takes forever to get someone on the telephone.

And imagine if a resort forced you to check in electronically at the front desk or use the TV clicker to order room service or make an appointment for a back rub. That hotel would close down fast. Guests at fancy hotels want to be pampered by people, not machinery. But giving check-in clerks and masseurs a system that tells them about the likes and dislikes of guests is appropriate. That way they can pamper guests even more.

"Appropriate technology" would make a great buzzword.

I heard it first when I visited Toyota headquarters in Japan. For Toyota, appropriate means investing in a global network, developing its own computer-aided design and manufacturing software and creating the Lexus customer service database. But when it comes to manufacturing, Toyota almost always chooses simple processes over technical complexity. Since my visit three years ago, the company has turned away from "mass customization" and returned to building simpler, less costly cars with fewer parts. That has helped Toyota reduce the price of its best-selling Camry.

So brush off those tired buzzwords and brush up on appropriate technology. You might tick off a few rabid tech-nophiles but your customers, management and shareholders will thank you.

Author: Allan E. Alter

Alter is Computerworld's department editor, Managing. His Internet address is





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