From the November 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

The "Huh?" Factor

Talking to a techie requires two sets of skills. The first barrier is understanding their language: CAT 5, DSL, VPN, etc. Once you're past that roadblock, you've got to distill the business benefits. Don't expect proficiency in the first area to help you understand your techie's explanation of the second.

According to a survey by ClarITeam Corp., 71 percent of executives can't efficiently evaluate the performance of their IT infrastructure. "It's actually more of a challenge for small business than for the corporate folks," says Ray Boggs, vice president of technology market research firm IDC.

Unfortunately, the problem is getting worse as technology needs increase. "Just when you're understanding processor speed and memory, now what matters is networking speed, routers and VPNs," says Boggs.

There's only one real solution. Find someone who can translate the babble into English and match technology to your needs. "If somebody can't explain the benefits to you in a way you can understand, it's time to find somebody else," says Boggs. That may be your computer dealer or a consultant. Be ruthless. As Boggs notes: "You're on the hook."

Strong Build

If the folks at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University are right, your office may need rearranging. The school hired Frank Gehry-the world's hottest architect since the opening of his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain-to design the Peter B. Lewis Building for its Weatherhead School of Management.

The exterior incorporates Gehry's distinctive swirling walls, but inside is where the revolution took place. "We were trying to create an opportunity for the student to interact with faculty and researchers to create knowledge," says management professor Richard J. Boland Jr., the school's point man on the project. "If you teach them a fact, they'll forget it in six weeks. If they create the information, they will always remember it."

"Serendipitous encounters often produce the most fruitful exchanges," says Jim Glymph, a partner at Gehry Partners LLC. "[Looking] at the layout of the building-which surrounds classrooms and seminar rooms with faculty offices and student areas-the circulation that's established creates opportunity for mixing."

The combination of elements on each floor accomplishes its goal. "Once you go in, you're amazed that you keep running into people," says Weatherhead's dean, Mohsen Anvari.

The design also accommodates individuality. Gehry's team watched top professors in the class. There was no common way they taught, so some classrooms resemble traditional lecture halls, others have a U-shaped seating design, and another's oval shape encourages discussions among equals (think King Arthur's Round Table).

Students can turn from their desks in certain halls to form study groups with fellow scholars sitting behind them. Acoustic consultants created canopies over discussion areas that help all students hear comments.

Substitute employees for students and management for professors, and the same principles could invigorate your business.


Business writer Chris Sandlund works out of Cold Spring, New York.

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