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01:09 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans

Business Technology: Business Weather Forecast: Hot Or Not?

There's lots of good news out there, along with some unsettling developments. What's going on? Bob Evans explores how our attitudes today will affect business down the road, and says keep an eye on objectives of business innovation, optimized processes, customer intimacy, and ever-increasing speed and opportunism.

You're all supposed to be not just brilliant day-to-day executers but also longer-term visionaries, blessed with an instinctive ability to know what's coming based on what's currently happening. So I'm asking for your help in trying to figure out whether things in this business are already great and getting even better, or whether some of the apparently conflicting signals all around us are signs of tough times to come. It's not just silly navel-gazing--it matters because the outlook and attitudes we adopt today will have massive influences on how well our businesses are able to compete over the next 2-3 years. So let's take a look at the tea leaves and see what they tell us.

In the month of April, the U.S. economy creates 288,000 jobs. While there's a long way to go, that's a tremendous start.

In the month of May, U.S. gas prices reach $2 a gallon. Will these rising costs force consumers and businesses to cut back on overall spending? Dell reports spectacular financial results, with growth in all sectors of its business. However, the ultra-efficient company says that in its latest quarter, days of inventory edged higher, closer to four days than its usual three. Is this a statistical quirk, or a portent of trouble?

Continuing a stunning trend of major IT vendors putting their disputes aside to collaborate for the benefit of mutual customers, Microsoft and Oracle agree to work together for the first time ever on application development. This is great news for not just the very specific project it involves, but also because it gives other feuding companies plenty of incentive to put their customers' needs ahead of their own squabbles.

Cisco reports strong quarterly results, leading CEO John Chambers to say, "This is the first major growth, adjusted for seasonality, that we've seen in the U.S. enterprise in a very long time." (By the way, Cisco's quarterly numbers beat all analyst projections--nevertheless, its stock got hammered, presumably because the company didn't promise to deliver 40% growth as it regularly did in the '90's.) What's the standard these days for growth?

Then we have one where I'm not sure if the appropriate cliche is that the pot is calling the kettle black, or someone's robbing Peter to pay Paul, or what's good for the goose is good for the gander; whichever, the point is that Microsoft is cutting its internal IT spending by $100 million by the end of next year. Now, on the one hand, we can say it's a great example of a global corporation using IT to drive enormous productivity increases and cost-reductions; on the other, it could also state very emphatically that IT spending in such companies could or perhaps should fall steadily over time. What's that mean for your company?

Wal-Mart, which about a year ago mandated that its top 100 suppliers be in full compliance with its RFID standards by January 2005, now reports that 200 additional suppliers will be on board for the program this summer, and that all of its U.S. suppliers will be tied in by 2006. Now, the company's not saying, but how many companies are there in that "all of its suppliers" category? Is it 1,000? 5,000? 10,000? Whatever the number, the point is unmistakable: the largest and most-influential company in the world is saying that this is the future. Now, it's entirely possible that RFID will go the way of Nehru jackets and bubble memory, but that's what business strategy is all about: evaluating your options and placing your bets. It's entirely possible that within your company, RFID would be at best a solution in search of a problem. But for thousands of other companies, it's going to be a driver of substantial change---can you afford to stay passive?

And speaking of RFID ... no less a perspectivizer than Bill Gates had this to say about the rapidly emergent wireless technology: At Microsoft's yearly meeting with CEOs of American and global businesses, Gates described radio-frequency identification as a "revolutionary" technology, and said that approximately 200 of Microsoft's customers are using RFID. Gates said that number should be much higher: "Maybe a third of our customers could be doing things with RFID." So if you're now feeling antsy/excited/paranoid about this hot new thing, our latest RFID coverage can help--see the links to related stories on the right.

Other Voices

A Nepalese Sherpa has broken the record for the fastest ascent of Mt. Everest, scaling the world's highest mountain in 8 hours and 10 minutes. Pemba Dorji Sherpa, 26, surpassed the previous record by more than two hours, reaching the summit at 2:10 a.m. local time on Friday, officials said. The previous record of 10 hours and 46 minutes was set last year by fellow Sherpa, Lakpa Gheylu

-- CNN, May 21

Cisco's probably working with some crisis-communications specialists as it grapples with the tangible and intangible repercussions from the reported theft and posting on the Internet of large portions of Cisco's Internetwork Operating System. A full week after the first news of this potential disaster, this is as much as Cisco would disclose publicly: the company is "aware that a potential compromise of its proprietary information occurred." Meanwhile, the FBI says, "We are assisting Cisco in the investigation of a possible theft of proprietary data." While it's understandable that the circumstances dictate that Cisco says as little as possible, Cisco's not the only one with massive exposure on this: what about the potential cybersecurity risk all of you face if that code gets into the wrong hands? Let's hope Cisco is able, much sooner rather than later, to tell its customers what to expect, and what to do to avoid being compromised.

And finally, there's the PC business, which some people view as a highly accurate barometer of economic conditions. After a few years of relative flatness, 2004 PC sales are expected to jump 13.6% to 186.4 million units, with more growth forecast for 2005 as well, according to Gartner. Almost 100 million PCs are expected to be replaced this year and nearly 120 million more in 2005, Gartner said. So that's good news, right? Well, maybe not--that replacement binge should end next year, meaning a return to flatness for PC sales for a couple of years afterward.

So what indeed does all this mean? Should we be cowed, courageous, cautious, or cavalier? My two cents says that while these are all things to be mindful of, they cannot be allowed to divert us from our objective of being agents of productive, forward-looking, and customer-centric change. The goals of business innovation, optimized processes, customer intimacy, and ever-increasing speed and opportunism cannot be sacrificed, and cannot be compromised. Those are the characteristics on which companies will be judged over the next few years, and I think the grading scheme will be pass/fail--there won't be any room for C's or incompletes. And the good news is that many vectors are combining to help us reach those goals: a powerful economy, increased vendor collaboration, ongoing technological innovation, and a sober sense that we've all truly learned a great deal from the past several years.

Be not afraid.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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