Thursday, November 30, 2006

Computer Literacy

Many people are lagging in computer literacy -- the knowledge and skills needed to use computers effectively -- in the workplace.

Different jobs require different degrees of computer literacy. Virtually everybody needs to know how to keyboard nowadays. Speed and accuracy are more important issues for some jobs than others. Virtually everybody needs to understand the company’s IT policies and procedures related to privacy, security and appropriate use.

To some extent, advances in information technology (hardware and software) have made computers more user-friendly. The interfaces with machines have become more intuitive for people. For example, here are some computer tasks that almost everyone can do and that don’t even require keyboarding skills.
  • Get cash from an ATM
  • Take digital photos
  • Use a self-checkout lane at the supermarket
  • Pump self-service gasoline
  • Operate a cash register at McDonalds
  • Make calls on a cell phone
  • TiVo your favorite TV shows

WARNING: The pace of change in information technology is so rapid as to render anyone’s computer skills and capabilities obsolete unless they receive on-the-job training or learn on their own to keep up.

Many employers will not spend the time and money to educate/train employees in information technology, figuring that they can get the right mix of skills they need by hiring and firing people. So in many cases, the burden is on the individual to keep his or her skills up. Fall behind, and catching up is very hard. Fall behind and your career options diminish.

QUESTION: Who is keeping an eye on business leaders to make sure they are maintaining their computer literacy? It’s not like they are going to hire and fire themselves. While the CEO may not need to do much keyboarding, he or she does need to understand Moore’s Law, business process reengineering, data warehousing, the Internet, etc.

Ultimately, the market will do the job, and a lot of innocent people in the company may suffer. Directors, if there are any, can do the job if they are strong. Rank and file employees can promote technological change in a company through political means. They may not teach the CEO how to keyboard and do ad hoc database queries, but they can try to protect their jobs by trying to keep the company from falling behind technologically and subsequently failing in the marketplace. Having the inmates run the asylum is not a good IT strategy, however!

  • Every employee, including senior executives, should have a job description, including a description of the level of computer literacy he or she is expected to maintain.
  • Every employee should have a regular performance evaluation which includes computer literacy in the goal setting and performance evaluation process.
  • Companies should provide employees the time they need and/or pay for training to achieve each person’s computer literacy goals.

Keystone Computer Group has the expertise and capabilities that organizations in the Washington, DC area need to develop and implement these recommendations. We can help you improve computer literacy in your organization.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Christmas Wish List

Happy Thanksgiving!

As Thanksgiving is the traditional start of the Christmas gift-buying season, I am pleased to share with you my "wish list" for the coming holiday season... These ideas are for the inventive among you. The rest will have to wait a while before these items are available, i.e., send cash.

  • Voice recognition software. This will fundamentally change the way we interact with machines. "Computers" will be embedded in every device so that we can tell them what to do. N.b., the current state of the art of computer voice recognition is not satisfactory for my purposes. First, it does not do a good enough job recognizing words correctly (even with "training"), and second, it does not understand the meaning of words well enough to take proper actions.

  • Home automation hardware and software. Let me monitor and control things in my house using TCP/IP and a browser-based application. I want to be comfortable and minimize energy consumption. I want to feel safe and secure. I want to know when things are not working right. I want to contain the dogs on my property.

  • Networked home entertainment. Let each person in my family listen to their choice of recorded music, play video games, watch videos, go online, listen to the radio, watch TV, wake to music, etc. anywhere in my home. And let it be simple, using one monitor/screen per room, one set of speakers per room, one keyboard per room, one set of game controllers per room and one universal remote per person.

  • Universal headset. I'll wear it all the time; at work, in the car, on the subway, and at home. I'll wear it to listen to recorded music or the radio, talk on the phone, or to converse with someone standing in front of me. I will be able to select my "focus" wearing the headset quickly and easily, without confusing or annoying the people around me. A good universal headset will be help make voice recognition a reality by reducing the effects of background noise.

In case you are wondering, Microsoft's long-awaited upgrade of their Windows operating system, called Vista, which is scheduled for release shortly after Christmas, is not on my wish list. I have been using a Beta copy of Vista at work. It is supposed to be more reliable and more secure than its predecessors. It is supposed to do a better job of interoperating with new devices and technologies. Unfortunately, however, the only changes I can see are cosmetic and not real, requiring me to learn new menus and new click-sequences to accomplish things I used to know how to do. I'm not convinced I need/want Vista yet. Of course, if you want to give me a new computer with Vista preloaded, I suppose I'd take it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Case for Notebook Computers?

It seems that everybody has a notebook computer nowadays. Why is that? How do people justify paying 50% more for the “benefits and features” of a notebook? It is a mystery.

What are the benefits and features that are unique to notebook computers? There is just one. It is mobility potential. With a notebook computer you have the potential to use your computer whenever and wherever you like. Potential is seduction. Reality is disappointment and regret.

The barriers to real mobile computing are significant. Buying a notebook is only the first step. It is the easy part. More difficult is integrating a notebook into the way you work and live so that you have your notebook at hand, charged and ready with the files you need, when the time arrives to use it “on the road.” A notebook cannot serve as a mobile computer if you leave it at the office or if it is not charged when you want to use it unplugged.

Taking a notebook computer into the real world introduces it to a wide array of factors that limit its usefulness. For example, try using a full-size notebook on an airplane. You’ll find that when the person in the seat in front of you reclines his/her seat, you cannot open your notebook far enough to use it. Try using a notebook outdoors or in a brightly lighted environment. You’ll find that you cannot see the screen. Excessive heat and humidity can slow a notebook to a crawl and/or damage it. Connecting a notebook to the Internet while on the go can be highly problematic. Trying to get your notebook to synchronize with someone else’s projector for a presentation can involve embarrassing delays, if not a complete failure.

Often unappreciated by buyers are the sacrifices that go with owning a notebook computer. Ergonomically, notebooks are a disaster. You have to learn to keep your thumbs up when you type to avoid tapping the touch pad, making the cursor jump around the screen, garbling what you are typing. Few people can use a notebook all day without an external keyboard and monitor. Poor ergonomics translates into discomfort, reduced productivity and higher rates of repetitive stress injuries for notebook owners.

To realize the potential of mobile computing, you have to carry your notebook with you everywhere you go. Depending upon how much and how far you have to carry your notebook, it will frequently seem heavy and bulky. In addition, your notebook will weigh on your mind as you travel about. Knowing that you are carrying an expensive piece of equipment which contains valuable information means that you have to be attentive to it and vigilant against any threats to it. God forbid it gets lost, stolen or damaged. Then what? That depends on what you have on the machine and whether you have it backed up. If you have your tax return and/or valuable business information stored on the laptop and it has not been backed up, you could be in big trouble.

Let’s assume that you’ve done the math, and it turns out that a notebook computer is right for you. Perhaps you are a student who can touch-type 80 words a minute, and you are going to use it to take notes in classes. Here are a few valuable suggestions:

  • Require a user name and password to boot the notebook so that if the machine is lost or stolen, it cannot be easily operated.
  • You have valuable and/or confidential information on the hard disk, so encrypt the disk. Otherwise, if the notebook falls into the wrong hands, it will not be hard to read the disk and steal your identity.
  • Set up automated online/network backups of your data files to minimize costs and disruptions when something bad happens to your notebook.

For most people, the decision to buy a notebook computer is a mistake. But people have the ability to rationalize almost anything. And denial is a common trap that people fall into. So, it is likely that people will continue to buy notebooks in spite of reason and experience.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Biggest Threats to Data and Info Systems

Sometimes people think that their data and information systems are “safe” because they’ve got anti-virus software, firewalls, pop-up blockers and spam filters. “Unfortunately, these people are operating under a false sense of security,” says John Redmond, an information technology (IT) strategist and business security expert with Keystone Computer Group.

According to Redmond, “People don’t understand the risks involved, either. Asked ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ people just shrug. They don’t appreciate the apocalyptic possibilities.” And those are…

  • You get fired from your job.
  • Your organization fails.
  • Your identity is stolen and your bank account is drained.
  • You are arrested and put in jail.
  • Your name is splashed in the newspapers.
  • You are sued by clients/customers claiming losses and damages.
  • All of the above.

What are the biggest threats? They may not be what you think they are! These are the top-4 threats, according to Keystone Computer Group which has been serving the IT needs of small and mid-sized organizations in metropolitan Washington, DC since 1982.

  1. The biggest threat is your employees. For example:
    • Mistakes happen, (how else will employees learn if you don’t provide guidance and continuing education?) like one person clicking a seductive-looking yet malicious link on an email or web site. And because yours is a networked, teamwork environment, the mistakes of one can become the problems of many.
    • Your employees embody valuable data. So, when you lose a key person to a competitor, retirement, disability, death, etc. you are losing valuable data.
    • Disgruntled employees do malicious things. “Hopefully they’ll quit rather than act out,” you say? Or, maybe you want them to do something and give you cause to fire them?
    • After you fire a disgruntled employee, they may be willing to “cut off their nose to spite their face,” spreading embarrassing truths and despicable lies about you. Thus it has always been; only with the Internet, they have a MUCH BIGGER audience.

  2. Portable devices are the next biggest threat. This includes laptop/notebook computers, PDAs/Blackberries, cell phones, portable storage devices, and similar devices. Why?
    • Portable devices break easily, and if they have not been backed-up, data gets lost when they break.
      • Performing and managing back-ups on portable devices are often complex tasks, and often they do not happen properly.
    • Portable devices get stolen, and they get lost.
      • In May 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) learned that an employee took home a laptop computer and external hard drive containing Social Security numbers of millions of veterans. They were stolen from his home.
      • In June 2006, a laptop containing Social Security numbers 13,000 DC government workers and retirees was stolen Monday from the home of an employee of the company which administers the District's retirement plan.
    • Because they are not properly secured.
      • Often times no user name/password login is required to operate the device. The hard disk is not encrypted. So, if it is lost or stolen, it takes no special skill to access everything on the machine.
      • Say you’ve got some time to kill in O’Hare between flights. You can pull out your laptop to use one of the available open WiFi networks. If you have file sharing enabled on your laptop, and many laptops do, anybody else on that WiFi network can surf your hard drive while you are checking your email.
      • You are walking down the street with your Blackberry on your belt. A fellow is walking behind you with a laptop in his briefcase. His laptop has synchronized via Bluetooth with your Blackberry and is copying your contact list, calendar and emails. It takes about 15 seconds, and you never know what happened.

  3. Wireless networks are a threat because they can sprout without being properly authorized and properly secured.
    • It doesn’t take an IT expert to buy, plug in a wireless access point and create a wireless network. The devices are inexpensive, and out of the box, many such devices are completely unsecured. It does take some technical sophistication to properly secure the wireless network once it is up, so many such networks are completely unsecured. Anybody in the vicinity of the access point can get on the network.

  4. Power is the Achilles heel of the Information Age.
    • Everything comes to a halt when the power goes off. Backup power, if you’ve got it, only helps with minor, brief power interruptions. A power outage over a wide area lasting for days, and you are not going to be able to transact business.
    • The power generation and transmission grid is a complicated, antiquated, patchwork affair, which allows some sharing of power and on-line capacity to meet peak needs. It is not a fail-safe system. In many areas, the power system is not reliable. Fortunately, in most central business districts, the power is more reliable than it is in tree-lined residential areas.

For more information or for questions, call John Redmond at 240-486-6370. Keystone Computer Group is located at 4615 Lee Highway, Arlington, VA 22207.