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  • National Center for Technology Planning (NCTP) www.nctp.com. Although the NCTP is geared to technology planning primarily for schools, much of the information also applies to business.

  • www.realrates.com This site, run by computer consulting guru Janet Ruhl, is a great place to find a technology consultant and to find out how much to expect to pay.

  • www.cnet.com cNet is my personal favorite for news on the latest technology. Their product reviews are timely, unbiased, and comprehensive.

  • www.zdnet.com Lots more technology news and product reviews.

  • www.dynamism.com Wondering what kind of technology is just around the corner? Dynamism.com specializes in selling computers and other information technology that is currently available only in Japan, where the very latest technogadgets are oftentimes available long before they are available in the U.S.
Technolust or Technobust?

Maybe it's a guy thing, but there's something about gadgets that turns me on. I have long been attracted to beautiful machines and to the latest technical innovations. Put the two together -- say, in the form of a curvy BMW Z8, or a svelte Apple PowerBook G4 (the one with the sexy titanium case), or a buxom cable modem with the promise of a lusty 1.5 Mbps throughput -- and I'm in heaven.

Now, I'm not saying that women aren't equally interested in technical things -- I know many whose expertise make me look like I just I just walked in from a special guest appearance as Cletus on The Simpsons -- but I'm convinced that deep down, the feelings are different. Where my feelings for the latest technogadget are all about unbridled passion and l'amour, women are more practical about their technology, to the point of being platonic. Where I'm whispering sweet nothings like, "You're the most beautiful laptop computer I've ever seen in my life, come with me my sweet and I'll show you the world," they're saying, "Can't we just be friends?"

So what can you do to make sure that the technology you buy for your business matches both the needs of your business and the needs of your clients? To answer this question, I'll turn to Dr. Kathleen Allen, professor of entrepreneurship and managing director for the Technology Commercialization Alliance at USC's Marshall School of Business. She's also co-author with Jon Weisner of the new book E-Business Technology For Dummies. Dr. A is not just an e-business expert, she's a female e-business expert , and everyone knows that women are smarter than men are when it comes to buying technology.

According to Allen, buying new technology without first having a compelling reason for doing so -- and without a plan for how it will enable you to provide better products and services for your clients -- is a recipe for technodisaster. Says Allen, "Independent professionals need to find ways to be able to work efficiently and effectively and to connect easily with their clients and with one another. Taking time to put together a technology plan helps you make a more effective investment in technology over the term of your business. In our research we found that businesses that employed technology to facilitate their operations found new opportunities for revenue streams and new directions that they never saw before."

Not having a plan usually results in the kinds of problems most businesses --including IPs -- would prefer to avoid. And one more thing: A good technology plan can improve both the service you provide to your clients and your client relationships, so long as you first ask your clients what they need, and then incorporate the solutions to these needs into your plan.

So how do you go about putting together a top-notch technology plan for your business?

According to Kathleen Allen, there are four steps.

Step 1: Decide where you want your business to go (and then identify the technology that will help you get there). First, take a very close look at your business and determine the goals that you want to achieve. Ask yourself: "What's going on in your industry that will allow you to grow, and what is your competition doing?" This analysis is very personal to you and your business; it's where you get to decide what you want for your business. Next, find out what technology is out there, what it costs, and if it can help you do a better job for your clients. Ask questions like:

  • How will this technology make my job quicker, easier, or more accurate?

  • Will this new gadget make it easier for my clients to contact me (and for me to contact them) when I'm out of the office or out of town?

  • Will the technology be compatible with the computers and other equipment I've got now, or will it require me to upgrade?

  • Is the price right now, or should I wait a few months for the price to come down?

  • Is there a better product -- one that will surpass everything else before it -- just around the corner?

Step 2: Look at how your business actually works. How does information flow through your business? What kind of technology are you currently using? How effective is your filing system? Says Allen, "From the time you start work in the morning until you shut it down in the afternoon or night, create a diary of what you do for your business. Where do you take phone calls? How do you access your email messages? How do things happen? Information flow in a business and the ability to manage information in a business -- whether it's invoices or products or services -- is critical to your success, and it's the biggest place where technology can be an asset to you if you set it up correctly."

Step 3: Hire a technology consultant. This is the point where you have to determine how to get from where you are now to where you want to be; and, unless you're totally conversant and up to date on all the latest technology, then you should seriously consider bringing in a technology consultant to help you out. To find a good one, try the following:

  • Get a referral from a friend or business colleague. If they've had good luck with someone, chances are you will too.

  • Contact an association. The Independent Computer Consultants Association's (ICCA) Web site allows you to search its listing of 1,500 independent computer consultants (all IPs, like you and me) for free.

  • Check the computer science department at nearby colleges or universities. You can also find qualified and affordable technology assistance by calling the school's career placement office.

Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 an hour for a top-notch professional consultant. If you can find a talented student, you'll pay much less and be helping someone gain experience. Be sure to get job references -- and check them. In the world of information technology, there are more certifications and training courses than you can shake a stick at, most signified by obscure acronyms that only a true technogeek could love. At least be sure that the consultant you hire has the right qualifications for the work you want him or her to do. And if he or she belongs to an industry association like ICCA, which provides seminars and continuing education opportunities to its members, that's even better.

Step 4: Create your plan. Lay out your business's technology needs in the form of a report with the following parts:

  • Introduction: An overview that answers the question: What does your business need, and what impact will new technology have on your clients?

  • Goals and Objectives: Specific goals that you hope to achieve by using technology. How will you integrate technology into your business? What performance and client outcomes do you hope to see?

  • Existing Resources: List the equipment that you already have access to; how will existing technology support your objectives?

  • New Resources: List the hardware and software that you need to purchase to support your goals and objectives. This is where a technology consultant can be worth his or her weight in gold.

  • Training: How will you learn to use the new resources? Again, a good technology consultant can be helpful here, too.

  • Maintenance: How will the new resources be maintained, and what are the ongoing charges? How much coverage do warranties provide? Is it necessary to buy insurance?

  • Costs: How much will all this new stuff cost you?

  • Assessment: How will the effectiveness of technology purchases be measured? A candid assessment will help you invest your future technology dollars more wisely.

The plan itself doesn't need to be very lengthy to serve its purpose -- depending on the complexity of your business and its technology, a page or two will likely suffice. According to Kathleen Allen, the results can sometimes be surprising. "The choice isn't always to buy technology. You can stay with what you have if you determine from your analysis that your clients aren't demanding anything else. Or you may just upgrade what you already have, or do something totally different. Whatever the outcome, however, your plan will provide the direction you need."

So, the next time you feel yourself becoming the victim of technolust, before you reach for your credit card first make sure that you've got a plan for what technology to buy, and when you ought to buy it. While creating a technology plan may not be as fun as simply buying every sexy new gadget that catches your eye, I guarantee that it will ensure that the gadgets you do buy will actually help your business rather than hinder it, and that your clients will directly benefit.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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