The computer revolution was mighty. Close your eyes and imagine your shop ten years ago. Now open them and look around — it's as if a tidal wave crashed through your business and when it receded, left computers in all their aspects everywhere.
Every office worker has their own PC. E-mail is how you send messages to everyone — maybe even within your office. You might even fax through your computer. You have an accounting package and do all your bookkeeping on it. You use it to send bills and pay invoices, probably generating and printing your own checks.
Word processing? Every letter written, every bit of marketing copy, every single written word to come out of your shop only gets on paper by way of a computer. Estimating? Ten years ago when I was out visiting shops, it got to be comical how many owners would pull me aside, swear me to secrecy, and show me an estimating macro they had designed on Excel or Lotus. I myself had already done the same and used it to estimate, print the quote, generate materials purchase order and job work order — in 1991. Today this is standard fare.
Most salespeople use lead software. Most owners keep their schedules and God knows what else on their palm pilot. There are job tracking programs, productivity tracking programs, employee "time clock" programs, even whole shop management programs — some fit most any small business, some are tailored for the solid surface market. IT (information technology) has even invaded the production areas of our shops, with computer assisted routers and saws and digitized templating.
And this is only the IT in our shops. We float on a sea of computers: the CPA who audits us and files our taxes; the banks who take and dispense our money and then send us written reports of what they did and when they did it; the credit card nexus of companies when people pay us with plastic — the internet. Every one of them and their vendors, and our vendors, and our vendors' vendors. As Harvard Business Review editor Nicholas Carr writes, "Hardly a dollar changes hands anymore without the aid of computer systems." Amen.
This 360-word recitation of the obvious is to underscore a point: computers are everywhere. The revolution was mighty, but it's over.
This has dramatic implications for our shops.
When everyone has something, that something is now a commodity. This means that it can't differentiate us from our competitors. It's what we have that they don't have that does that. When all our competitors have the same basic IT as us, and swim in the same IT ocean we do, IT has become simply a new cost of doing business.
Think of electricity. Like many new technologies (telegraph, phones), when it was first introduced, it provided opportunities for differentiation. But when it matured, when everybody had it, nobody would think of using it in marketing (Buy from us! We've got ELECTRICITY!). It became a pesky necessary expense, a cost to find ways to cut. (How many skylights do you have in your shop?)
At the same time, as California shops found out two summers ago (remember "rolling blackouts?"), to be without electricity for even a very short time can be catastrophic.