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The Whiteboard: You can gain tremendous productivity with small, routine investments

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Why is it that, rather than doing a little bit of routine maintenance, so many of us let little things go until they become major problems?

When Microsoft announced it would no longer support its Windows XP operating system after April 14, 2014, many small businesses were suddenly faced with an unplanned — and, in some cases, large — expense. With a little bit of maintenance, this could have been handled much more smoothly.

The end of support for XP means there will be no more security patches for the operating system. This leaves computers running XP vulnerable to malware attacks, which could affect entire networks.

The smart move is getting out of Windows XP. Unfortunately, for most businesses, this means not only buying new operating software but also buying a new computer for each XP user.

Why not just upgrade the software and leave the computers alone? Windows XP is 12 years old. Since its release, Microsoft has launched three generations of new operating systems — Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. Computers that are still running Windows XP are pretty much obsolete, probably ready for some kind of fatal failure and most likely don’t have enough computing power or memory to efficiently handle the new operating systems.

For one company, that meant unexpectedly replacing half of the computers on its network. If the company had routinely replaced, say, a quarter of its computers each year so that no computer in the system would be more than four years old, this unexpected scramble and budget problem could have been avoided.

It didn’t stop there. Lo and behold, the company had a critical software package, used to program one of the key machines in its factory, that would not run on Windows 7 or 8. It wouldn’t because it is so old, and hasn’t been updated in so long, that it actually runs on the old MS-DOS operating system, which Windows XP can emulate.

The cost of buying a current edition of the same software package compatible with Windows 7 or 8 is about $25,000. The immediate solution to that problem was to give the employee who uses that software two computers — a new one with Windows 7 and his old one with Windows XP and the programming software, disconnected from the Internet so no mischief could happen.

In a world where we are so dependent on technology, it is clear that a failure to plan, budget and spend on routine maintenance and upgrades to both software and hardware can result in problems that quickly snowball.

It’s just like the old tag line for Fram oil filters, “Pay me now or pay me later.” Pay a little bit now or pay a whopping big bill later when your engine blows.

It isn’t only computers that become obsolete quickly today. Knowledge and skills can become obsolete before we know what has happened. Unfortunately, many companies aren’t any better at dealing with maintenance of peoples’ skills than they are at maintaining computers.

Recently I watched a gentleman put the finishing touches on a report he was writing when I walked into his office. He painfully hunted and pecked with his two index fingers. I wondered how many productive hours have been lost over the last couple of decades of his career for a simple lack of keyboarding skills.

It is commonplace for employees to have powerful computers on their desks loaded with word processing and spreadsheet software they barely know how to use. They haven’t been trained properly because, “It’s too expensive,” or “It takes too much time away from the office.” How expensive is it to have people who can’t handle anything beyond the most basic business letters and spreadsheets?

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is tremendous productivity that can be gained with small investments made routinely over time. But nothing happens without recognition of the current state of affairs.

I encourage business leaders to assess their computer hardware and software and make those controllable, routine investments to stay current and avoid self-made crises like the end of Windows XP.

But even more so, I encourage them to assess and invest in their people.

How many people in your organization have really made the transition from hand-writing to typing? Which people can really get the most out of word processing or spreadsheet software? Which people can barely fill in the cells in a spreadsheet that someone else has created for them? How much could be gained if everyone who struggles could be raised to a reasonable level of competence?

Don’t wait until computers and software are obsolete, and don’t wait until people have lost any semblance of competence and productivity. Make those little investments. Pay it now and reap the benefits later.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at

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