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FE&SEditorial Archives2003June — Consultant's Viewpoint

Facing The Ever-Challenging Evolution Of Technology

Ken Schwartz

Ken Schwartz
Schwartz, Schwartz & Associates
Pinellas Park, Fla.

I visited my 96-year old grandmother the other day and, since this visit, I have been thinking about all the changes she must have experienced throughout her lifetime. Technology, specifically the reliance so many of us place on it today, came immediately to my mind. A necessity for many of us and just a commonplace part of life for our children, technology has changed the consultant's world in ways that many of us (never mind my grandmother) could not have imagined. It allows us to do more and deliver more at a much faster pace than ever before. I know that these are things that we have all thought about. But how, I wonder, is it challenging us? How did we ever survive without our online technology?

My 10-year-old daughter now shops for a horse online and my 14-year-old son IMs (for the uninitiated, that's Instant Messages) his 30 closest friends with one touch of a button while, at the same time, burning a new CD and playing some video game I can't even pretend to understand. In the meantime, at our office one of our servers starts to crash and we are in crisis mode until our backup server comes online (after a mere two hours of absolute terror).

Let's face the facts: Information technology, in whatever form we use it, is here to stay. Our company's investment in technology now includes multiple servers, workstations, plotters, color digital printers, a digital scanner, digital cameras, digital video capability and the list goes on. In fact, as technology evolves, so do our needs. Given my age and personal experience, I think the technology craze started with the invention of the fax machine or it might have been as early as the creation of the Polaroid camera. Nonetheless, for our consulting firm, it seems like a lifetime ago that we purchased our first CADD station. It was the most expensive computer we have ever purchased and required us to buy a math co-processor chip just to run it. Today, our CADD stations are essentially disposable, as we replace them about every two years with the latest and more powerful new models. This ongoing improvement in technology allows us to do more in ever-shorter periods of time and do it more efficiently. As I see it, we can either embrace technology or think of it as a necessary evil, but we cannot deny it is ever-changing and ever-challenging.

Recently, I held a conference call with several people involved in FCSI. One was in the United Kingdom, one was in California, one was in Illinois, another was in Louisville and I was in Florida. I know this is quite common today but, when you think about it, the technology that allows us to do such a simple thing as a conference call is pretty incredible. During this call, I e-mailed an invoice to a client in the Dominican Republic while taking notes from my conference call and plotting a drawing for an unrelated project. Today, we all multi-task, which is another modern day buzz-term we have added to our vocabulary. What did we used to call it? I believe the term used to be "thinking."

For some, current technology is providing a false sense of knowledge and ability.

Technology has afforded us new and quick ways to reach out to people. We e-mail our family, friends and business acquaintances. We use technology to book airline flights and receive updated news that keeps us in touch with world affairs and helps us keep control of our complex lives. Whether we use or abuse it, we just can't seem to exist without contemporary information technology.

For some, however, current technology is providing a false sense of knowledge and ability. The purchase and use of readily available software and downloaded programs does not make one a foodservice consultant. Rather, our profession is still based on knowledge combined with the ability to visualize a logical creative process. The ability to share our thoughts via an electronic medium remains secondary to the knowledge base and the ability necessary to create and communicate the design process. The capability to create logically comes from years of knowledge building, tested successes and realized and corrected mistakes. This basic knowledge foundation, which takes years to obtain, still cannot be replaced by today's technology.

Being a child of the '60s, I have grown up in our industry and have witnessed its technical evolution first hand and, as frightening as this may seem, it has been quite an interesting experience. Today, technology has provided us with the tools to create projects, deliver them via e-mail, manage them on the web, invoice clients electronically and be paid for our efforts without ever meeting the people involved. Technology has certainly changed the way we do business and it has also challenged us in many ways. A downside of technology, however, is that it can also be very impersonal.

I started out in this industry in a company that was founded by my great-grandfather in 1897. Growing up in our industry, I have had the pleasure of meeting many fine people and, consequently, some of my very best friends have come from the business. My point is that our industry continues to be based on relationships that no technology can replace.

Yet, it must be stated that information technology provides many opportunities for expanding our knowledge base and developing new relationships. Since our industry makes incredible resources available to all, what is very difficult for me to comprehend is why more people don't take advantage of the opportunities that are available at no cost. At our firm, we market ourselves as a high-tech/high-touch consulting firm. In this day and age, however, I believe it is difficult to be one without being the other. This understanding should not be limited to client/consultant relationships. We spend numerous hours each year in seminars and training sessions expanding our own knowledge through direct contact with others in our industry. We maintain relationships with manufacturers, their reps, equipment contractors and general contractors as a means of learning, as well as educating. Realizing that technology has its limitations, we rely heavily on our relationships to excel.

As time goes on, we will all, from time to time, reflect on the people and things that have most greatly impacted our lives and work. While on the one hand acknowledging its incredible impact, I also view technology merely as a tool of my trade. My experience is that technology cannot replace the human touch. So, my advice is to utilize information technology to its fullest capacity, expand your knowledge base as often as possible and embrace the people with whom you do business every day.

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