The CEO's Tech Toolbox


SPECIAL REPORTTHE CEO GUIDE TO TECHNOLOGY

The CEO's Tech Toolbox

Tech's "Dearth of Innovation"

Tech: Spending Wisely, Not More

"The Door Is Unlocked" for CIOs

Slide Show: Tech for the Chief

A while back, Jeff Pulver decided to infuse a bit of fun into his busy summer by making Friday his company's pizza and karaoke day. Naturally, the CEO of Pulver.com, a company in Melville, N.Y. that organizes summits and provides perspectives for the IP communications industry, didn't let a little problem like not being able to carry a tune stop him from performing in front of dozens of his employees.

Instead, Pulver bought the latest technology on the karaoke circuit, the so-called On-Key Pro Karaoke System from IVL Technologies in Victoria, British Columbia. IVL boasts that it can make a person's off-key warbling sound Celine Dion-perfect. "The microphone can make it seem as if I can actually sing," says Pulver, 42. "Now, Friday is my favorite day of the week."

MAPPING STRATEGIC DIRECTION. O.K., serenading your employees might not be for every CEO. But more than ever, loads of gadgets and new technologies can equip CEOs to deal with nearly every contingency, be it personal or business. And with all the tech firepower available -- from smart phones to software that can pinpoint a complex sales pattern that's otherwise imperceptible -- there are fewer excuses for being less than pitch-perfect in song or in business.

It's not just about rolling out new servers or a splashy Web site makeover. And it's far beyond executives relying on their BlackBerry or depending more than ever on the company's CIO. At the fastest-growing companies, CIOs are already part of the core executive team, mapping out strategic direction together with their chief execs.

"Our interim CEO, myself, and the CFO meet on a monthly basis, [and] it's our IT steering committee," says Ron Sha, CIO of software developer and integrator Borland (BORL). "We discuss the priorities, how we can unite IT with business initiatives."

"RITZ-CARLTON" SERVICE. You don't have to be in the tech industry to see productivity gains from information technology. Take Oregon Health & Sciences University, a Portland hospital serving 175,500 patients each year. CIO John Kenagy is developing an executive "concierge" service, designed to help his top 35 execs resolve technical problems while traveling.

A computer just died? Call the concierge hotline. The service will express-ship you a new laptop, complete with your documents and applications. Stumped with how to set up a wireless connection? Help is on its way. "Right now, we do Holiday Inn-type service, but we might want the Ritz-Carlton," Kenagy says.

In fast-changing industries, the CEO must keep up with technology or risk falling behind. Karen Christensen, CEO of encyclopedia and reference publisher Berkshire Publishing Group in Great Barrington, Mass., now finds herself competing with blogs and information sites like Wikipedia.com. So she's experimenting with incorporating multimedia -- pictures, video clips, and sound -- into the digital versions of her books.

A KEY LIST. And Christensen, 47, is looking at using Wikis, which are Web sites allowing hundreds of people -- for example, scholars and publishers -- to collaborate on the same text, to compile her printed and digital encyclopedias. "I grew up in the Silicon Valley, my father was in the computer business, and I loathed computers," says Christensen, whose father worked for Honeywell (HON), then for a Silicon Valley startup, before teaching computing at a community college. "It was a very startling thing to come full circle and make friends with technology."

The technologies that will matter most to CEOs depend on the industry they're in. But here are 10 newer technologies that CIOs and analysts we've interviewed suggest should make the list. Some have serious productivity value, while others are just plain fun, such as Pulver's karaoke system (see them in our slide show, "Tech for the Chief").

Uber-Personal Assistant

Wouldn't it be great if you had a personal secretary that could anticipate your information needs? Tech powerhouse IBM (IBM) is developing a piece of software called the Uber-Personal Assistant (UPA). Souped up with artificial intelligence, the Assistant will analyze your schedule, e-mails, and the text you're typing to figure out exactly what you're working on. Then, it will alert you to new e-mails pertinent to that project.

The program also will save you from having to search for information. Just when you stop typing a memo and think it would be nice to sprinkle in a few stats on how competition suffers at your hands, the UPA will serve them up. It will have already looked through all of the documents stored on your computer, plus scoured the Web (just in case) to come up with the figures you need.

As beguiling as this technology sounds, you can't buy it today -- the project is still under development. The technology should be available within a few years, though. But you can find UPA-like features on inventor Ray Kurzweil's artificial intelligence site, KurzweilAI.net. There, a competent-looking, animated character named Ramona greets visitors. Turn on the chat mode, and Ramona will initiate a conversation with you.

Next-Generation Collaboration

Want to talk to real people? Forget instant messenger (IM), e-mail, and that awkward video conferencing. IBM has another nifty program in the works: A next-generation collaboration system that will allow people to communicate either through the desktop computer or a wireless device, with a click of a button.

This software will allow you to not only contact the people you know but also employees within your organization whom you don't know. Say you're looking for an expert on product marketing. This system will search through your company's directory, locate the person you need to talk to, then let you set up a conversation with that expert either via IM, chat, or voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). VoIP allows users to not only talk but broadcast video conferences via the Web.

This system is already in trials within IBM -- employees can sign up to use most of these features. IBM Research plans to demonstrate it to Big Blue's top execs in August, says Peter Guglielmino, IBM's Chief Technology Officer for digital media. While no release date hasn't yet been set, expect to see this collaboration system on the market within one to two years.

Podcasting

To expand their audience, some companies have lately started using Apple's (AAPL) iPod music players to spread the word. Herbalife (HLF), the maker of weight-management and nutritional supplements, has, in company presentations, given out more than 1 million iPods to distributors so far this year.

The promotion has been so effective in building brand loyalty -- Herbalife's product sales were up 15% in its March quarter -- that the company is currently experimenting with using podcasts, the audio programs that people can download onto their iPods or other MP3 players, says Herbalife CIO Aldo Moreno. The programs can be used to train distributors as well as to send a marketing message to younger consumers, he says.

While podcasts from preachers, Mac fans, and politicians are among the dominant broadcasts available today (see BW Online, 06/06/05, "The Lowdown on Podcasting"), the business world is beginning to listen up, too. General Motors (GM) is seeking to build up its beleaguered image by podcasting interviews with company execs. And Encore, which offers tickets to high-demand and sold-out concerts, plays, and sports contests, is podcasting information on upcoming events.

Seamless Wireless

When you travel, do you have too many must-have gadgets to lug along (not to mention all those chargers and power cords)? Most busy executives often end up bringing a laptop to use on hotels' Internet connection, a BlackBerry to check e-mail via cellular networks, and a cell phone for voice calls. But the days of packing three different chargers and myriad devices on business trips could be numbered.

Get ready for the next generation of smart phones just hitting the market. These phones allows users to access e-mail, surf the Web at superfast speeds, download and view PowerPoint presentations, and watch video. But the big draw? They're able to use various types of wireless networks to establish Net connections.

Verizon Wireless has offered Samsung's SCH-i730, costing $600 with a two-year plan, since June. The gadget lets users browse the Web via Verizon's (VZ) new, high-speed network. It also has Wi-Fi connectivity, allowing customers to make cheap calls whenever that network is available. Considering that 40% of cellular minutes today are used within buildings, many of which have Wi-Fi, this feature could offer significant savings.

Many wireless carriers are already developing services geared to such multitasking devices. This July, telco BellSouth (BLS) began a small trial of such a service, offering users one Motorola (MOT) phone, one phone number, and one voice-mail box no matter which wireless network -- cellular or Wi-Fi -- they're using. In five years, half of all cell phones will have built-in Wi-Fi, estimates Craig Mathias, founder of wireless consultancy Farpoint Group.

TiVoToGo

Who says you can't take advantage of the latest technology to relax when you're on the road? You have your TiVo box at home, but what good is it if you're traveling all the time? Actually, a special feature lets you move all your favorite business news shows and The Apprentice episodes from your TiVo digital video recorder onto your laptop before you leave the house, so you can watch the video on a flight or in a hotel. Just download the free software off TiVo's site onto your laptop.

As of June, you can now download your favorite shows onto Windows Mobile-based smart phones and Pocket PCs as well. Meetings may never be the same. And TiVo services will expand further in the coming months. Chains like Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (HOT), whose properties include Sheraton and Westin, are looking into allowing business travelers to access programs recorded on their home TiVos from their hotel rooms via high-speed Internet connections, says Starwood CTO Tom Conophy.

Mesh Networks

How do you get information quickly from devices in remote or hard-to-get-to locations? Try mesh networks that use sensors to pass information wirelessly to each other like an old-fashioned bucket brigade. Case in point: Recently, the Corvette race team placed first in North America's professional car races, the American Le Mans Series, thanks, in part, to using Motorola's mesh network. Sensors in this network transmitted video and performed under-the-hood diagnostics while the car was still speeding along the track. As a result, mechanics knew what parts needed to be replaced before the car made its pit stop.

Corporations can use these rapid-fire information networks to find out if equipment is overheating, or if a manufacturing line is starting to malfunction -- before these problems cause costly disruptions. Lower-bandwidth mesh networks, which are so low-power they use up one AA battery every five years, can also help increase buildings' energy efficiency -- for instance, by turning off the lights when there's enough daylight. And unlike today's wired-sensor networks, mesh networks can be installed within hours, not weeks, so they can be two to four times cheaper.

The main challenge for this technology: "It's quite revolutionary. As a result, there's quite a hurdle to convince the commercial customers to use it," says Tom Sereno, division manager and vice-president at technology integrator SAIC, which has recently created a prototype mesh system using wireless technology for battlefield applications. Most mesh networks in existence today are pilots. That likely won't be the case for long.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

When retailers such as Wal-Mart (WMT) and Best Buy (BBY) required that their suppliers use RFID tags, many naysayers didn't believe the cost of implementation was worth the benefits of knowing where a particular product was at a given time. But thanks to successful trials at those retailers, the tags, which can be scanned at warehouses and stores and expected to eventually replace bar codes, is about to become crucial in making business decisions.

Until recently, information provided by these tags, allowing users to track movements of pallets of goods through the supply chain, wasn't being used to their potential, says Erik Michielsen, an analyst with tech consultancy ABI Research. But that's changing, as companies implement special RFID intelligence software and begin to share their RFID data.

Companies are starting to use business-intelligence software from SAP (SAP) and startups like OATSystems and T3Ci to analyze the RFID data. "These systems can identify communications breakdowns," says Michielsen. For instance, if a soda supplier runs a weekend promotion and then notices that a retailer doesn't have the product in some of its stores, the supplier can call the retailer up to ask what's going on -- before the weekend has passed.

Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) Software

The acronym is certainly catchy, and analysts believe this next generation of business-intelligence software will become an indispensable tool. As companies and other entities become increasingly intolerant of receiving yesterday's data, BAM could become a $2 billion business by 2008, up from $100 million today, estimates Bill Gassman, a Gartner analyst. "If you see a police car, you don't want to know how fast you went five minutes ago, you need to know your speed right now," he says. "As businesses run faster and faster, every failure carries a huge cost."

And this software -- a dashboard of the most important business indicators such as up-to-the-minute product sales, power outages, units manufactured -- can prevent such costly failure.

Take one example: When a hurricane hits Georgia, executives of Georgia Power, providing electricity to 2 million homes, want to know exactly how many homes are without power at any given moment. And they want to be able to receive that data not only on their PCs but also their mobile devices, says CIO Bart Wood. His company's in-house business-activity monitoring software, deployed earlier this year and offering that type of data, could be the precursor of a slew of off-the-shelf products.

Already, this software is available from the likes of Tibco Software (TIBX) and webMethods (WEBM). It also comes as a free add-on to Microsoft's (MSFT) BizTalk. And business-intelligence vendors like Cognos (COGN), Business Objects (BOBJ), and Information Builders should introduce the functionality soon, says Gassman.

Real-Time Identity Theft Notification

Here's another immunization shot for businesses. On July 18, a Bellevue (Wash.)-based startup called Intelius launched one of the world's first real-time theft-notification services. The software keeps track of a person's public records, such as credit-card information and car registration. If someone attempts to change personal information on any of these records (and identity thieves often need to change your address to get a credit card or a driver's license in your name), you're notified with an e-mail or a short text message (SMS) to your cell phone.

The service costs $178.20 for a three-year corporate package. The best part: It comes with a $25,000 worth of insurance in case your identity is stolen.

Prediction Markets

This is technology that lets companies tap the corporate betting pool. Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Iowa has shown that betting pools are actually efficient ways to predict an outcome. A handful of large companies, like drugmaker Eli Lilly (LLY), have implemented market-like systems, allowing employees to bet on which medications will be approved on time, which products' sales will miss targets, or whether a particular ad campaign will impact sales. The idea is for executives to be able to predict a failure -- or success -- before it occurs.

These companies have also let consumer-focus groups trade "stocks" in order to gage their sentiments toward a particular product or to better understand market trends -- both of which can help shape a company's strategy.

This is how the games work: Players attempt to grow their virtual portfolios, in which a stock could represent, say, a drug receiving approval on time. As stocks trade up and down, a CEO can get a sense of what people with a partial knowledge of the situation are thinking. As a result, "you can get better accuracy than when simply using polls," says Emile Servan-Schreiber, CEO of NewsFutures, which, along with rivals like The Foresight Exchange, helps companies set up this game.

By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

With Burt Helm in New York and Sarah Lacy in San Mateo, Calif.


American Apparel's Future
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW

(enter your email)
(enter up to 5 email addresses, separated by commas)

Max 250 characters

 
blog comments powered by Disqus