user-friendly-tech

User-friendly Technology

Seven technologies we could start using today to be more productive.

As successful originators, we are intoxicated by the arrival of new technologies that promise to revolutionize our personal lifestyles and professional workflows. However, things can move so fast that we don’t even stop and take advantage of the trends that have matured to the point that they are no longer “new” but are ready for everyday use. I want to highlight seven practical technology applications available today and encourage you to consider using some of them every day.

Speech Recognition in Word Processing
Only five years ago, this seemed like an idle dream, to be available in some future unknown time. The idea that one could dictate a document through a microphone and have that information turned into some semblance of intelligible text seemed laughable. The irony is that with so many false starts, the public is reluctant to even try this technology now, when it actually has reached some degree of usability. Microsoft Office XP includes this capability, and setup and configuration took me only half an hour when I tried it recently with a cheap headset on a two-year-old office PC. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to achieve usable text output into Microsoft Word when I spoke at a comfortably slow rate, and found I could even give it standard commands such as to start a new paragraph, or to delete the prior word if I changed my mind.

The price of this capability is that users must train their particular copy of Word to the individual nuances of one voice, and use a headset with a boom microphone in a fairly quiet location to achieve reliable results of over 90 percent. Considering how slowly most people type, and the amount of mistakes that they make, this would appear to be a tool with a high degree of usability for many busy executives.

This technology has made remarkable strides in other areas as well. I am pleased with how well some customer service operations such as American Airlines and Sprint PCS use voice recognition, and how well it works. M.O.M.’s technology editor, Bruce Forge, has been reachable with an electronic attendant using voice recognition for several years, and I continually marvel at just how well his “receptionist” seems to understand questions and take notes, and how she never seems to have any attitude whatsoever.

Flat Panel Displays
Since my youth, I have heard promises of flat screen technology coming just around the corner and replacing the large, unwieldy displays that are based on 60-year-old vacuum tube technology—the lone holdouts in what has become almost exclusively a solid-state world (electronics based on silicon-based semiconductor devices). Unfortunately, it has proven generally impractical until very recently to replace these devices with thin, flat panels that take less space, weigh less, and offer breathtaking picture quality without any visible distortion. I was so impressed with these displays that a year ago I recommended to a major networking client that she replace all conventional monitors with LCD (liquid crystal display) monitors as normal attrition and growth occurred. Today, about half of our employees have LCD monitors, even though at $600 apiece, one could buy three or four conventional monitors.

These monitors are worth every dime; I bought one myself for the workstation where I do most of my writing and online activity. The flat monitors simply provide a more pleasing environment and offer less eyestrain than the older-style monitors. Considering how long a company may keep this type of device, I recommend that any new computer acquisitions automatically include an LCD monitor.

In the pure entertainment world of large screen television, we are probably still a few years away from a cost-effective phasing in of flat panel displays, but they are already very evident in small screen configurations for the bedroom or desktop. I would expect that we are only a few years away from seeing flat screen displays everywhere, but even now, they are completely viable for the average workstation in a mortgage company.

Office and Home Networking
All big offices have had local area networks for the past decade, and even a lot of small offices have acquired this capability. While it may appear more or less obvious to a lot of mortgage operations, it is really amazing how many smaller offices have yet to adopt this now very mature technology.

Networking two or three workstations together in a small office environment provides a multitude of capabilities that add to productivity. First, the wiring together of these computers will allow a single printer to be used by all of the computers in this so-called “workgroup” environment. If one user has files to share on his workstation, it is easy for other members of the workgroup to get access to review, modify, or print these files. A single Internet connection, high speed or otherwise, may be shared by all of the members of this workgroup. Most importantly, the loan origination system in the office can put all of the files that are active into one location.

The ability to put all of the files in one location is absolutely pivotal to the control of files in a mortgage office. Without a network, it is impossible to maintain good control over the “master” copy of a file. Having graduated from this situation to a network myself in 1993, it always amazes me just how important a step this really was in maturing beyond one office and effectively controlling the workflow.

This advantage even extends now into home offices, should you want to network several computers belonging to family members. The same basic rule applies: as long as you maintain a simple peer-to-peer workgroup (no dedicated server), a competent amateur or fairly low-level professional can be hired to set this up. You will want a professional networking person when you graduate beyond 10 machines into a server environment, which requires an entirely different level of hardware, software, and professional expertise.

An important corollary of all this is the recent arrival of wireless networking for both the home and office. Wireless connectivity is now inexpensive and allows the business user to operate a laptop in a truly mobile environment (in a conference room, for example) or to add new workstations easily even when additional wired connections are not available in the office. There are some security considerations that should be accounted for, however, and it is important to run encryption and be aware of the potential for eavesdropping from other individuals within range of these types of connections.

Backing Up Data
Unbelievably, a large percentage of small offices do not back up their data. There are only two kinds of mortgage offices: those that have already lost their data due to an equipment failure (usually the hard drive), theft, or fire, and those that are going to eventually lose their data. I learned this lesson the hard way when I lost an entire year’s worth of loan files by deciding to “learn” on my office PC without first backing up the data.

Several really great tools allow non-technical people to make daily or weekly backups of their indispensable data, usually loan origination files and key documents. A Zip drive is one great solution that allows users to insert a small diskette into an internal or external drive to be automatically copied. This can be done manually or with very inexpensive software, and it allows the office to move some of these backup files offsite to allow for the possibility of theft or fire.

The best all-around solution for the daily backup is to copy across your network from one drive on one machine to a different machine. This can be automated, is more reliable that other backup systems, and will allow for the restoration of data in the shortest time.

Instant Messaging
When I first used AOL’s text-based instant messaging feature a few years ago, I thought it was great fun but did not take it seriously. That was until I saw one of my major clients using it effectively in communications within her main and branch offices. I discovered that instant messaging is really the secret weapon for new communications technology on the Internet.

What is so unique about instant messaging (other than the fact that it is free) is its ability to allow what I call parallel communications: the user may carry on a phone call and still take important messages from the screen as needed. Since most of us cannot take two phone calls at once, we limit our accessibility during the work day by being unavailable for phone calls because it is a time-consuming, hit-or-miss process to get through when we need to. With instant messaging, we have the unthinkable in a communications system: instant access to others, complete control over whom we take messages from, the ability to filter recipients and callers at will, and above all, the ability to manage more than one session at a time.

In the last month I have been heavily involved with an online training program for a software company and have frequently been writing in PowerPoint while on the phone and taking several different messages from other key individuals around the country—all at the same time. I am completely sold on the overall benefits of the use of text-based instant messaging. I have even found the video and audio conferencing features, including online file transfers, to be of real value between two individuals if they have high-speed connections. However, only a dialup connection is required for online text chat. I have even used it from airports and in meetings while wired to the Internet with my wireless PCS phone-based modem in my laptop with a slow-speed connection.

Mobile- and Office-based Contact Management
I think the business world in general has missed a major productivity tool by not using contact management software more frequently. While I personally use ACT!, I have also used Goldmine and would highly recommend both. When you combine this type of software with two other tools that are available and affordable, some interesting possibilities arise.

Sprint PCS and other carriers now offer an integrated phone and Palm Pilot. While I have consistently stated that palm-top PCs are toys for the most part, I have also said that the one major exception to this rule is their ability to be used as portable contact management systems. If the device is synchronized with a desktop PC, users can carry a current copy of contacts and phone numbers with them at all times, a capability that is an absolute must for marketing and sales people who desire mobility.

When this Palm Pilot is integrated with the phone itself, a user can instantly dial phone numbers from the contact management software, and immediately dial that number through the mobile phone. Gone is the additional step of looking up the number and then dialing the phone, or of running a cable or infrared link between the two to make sure the phone has the latest phone numbers. Another worthwhile variation of this theme is the use of voice recognition technology to allow the user to call a phone number up by name from the portable phone, a solution that might appeal to many.

This is one case in which the user actually has several viable choices. My fundamental recommendation is to use contact management as a part of your workflow and integrate it into your mobile phone as you find convenient. I have a very light briefcase that I use when I leave the office; it holds my PCS phone and subnotebook (a small laptop optimized for light weight and size, with the ability to all on peripherals such as a CD drive and floppy disk drive). I run the subnotebook in hibernation so that I may restart it in only 20 seconds when I need to look up numbers or check my schedule. I then synchronize this laptop back in my office to the desktop PC with a wireless network connection.

Electronic Bill Pay
I have been a user of Quicken financial software for over a decade, and have used electronic bill pay on it for at least the last five years. I seriously question how any small businessperson without a bookkeeper can reasonably keep up with the demands of paying bills and managing accounts without the services offered by electronic bill pay.

While this service may have been pioneered by companies like Intuit, today most major banks offer a Web-based method of paying bills online. All of these systems allow the customer to schedule bills out to a predetermined date and to schedule regular recurring payments and set a fixed payment schedule. A key advantage of electronic bill pay is the ability to schedule out a payment for a day or two before it is due, for maximum use of your personal cash flow, while never worrying about actually being late in making a payment. Another advantage is the highly reliable trail of information available when you need to confirm payment and the details surrounding a transaction.

Paying bills by snail mail with the higher degree of human error involved, and the higher cost, and increased lack of security, makes absolutely no sense when one can pay electronically with the degree of security and convenience available with electronic bill pay.

If you look into one of more of these tools and start using them in your office, you can potentially increase your production while becoming more organized and improving communications with your customers. These individual pieces of the technology puzzle are readily available—why not see how one or more of them can help you?

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Future Technologies
The following three technologies will soon hit the shelves and give you even more reasons and methods for improving operations in your mortgage business:

  • Document storage and retrieval—High-speed scanners, coupled with efficient cataloguing software, will integrate paper flow with loan files and eliminate the flood of copies that are routinely produced, while offering more rapid retrieval of indexed information, with the ability to generate “copies” as needed. Utilizing PDF files and high compression image formats will guarantee the integrity of scanned information, and the generation of documents that are for all purposes originals, not copies.
  • Alternative identification techniques—As advanced as we have become, we still rely on human signatures for verification of the authenticity of legal agreements and other written communications. It is only a matter of time before encrypted digital signatures, handwriting recognition, retinal and fingerprint scanning, and several other techniques replace the unreliable paperwork system that is still rooted in the use of a centuries-old system requiring a manual signature. Coupled with electronic document storage, we may finally see the reduction we have all long sought in the amount of paperwork generated in the typical mortgage company.
  • Completely automated software upgrading and repair—We all laugh at this idea today, as we undertake the hassle we know we are in for when we have to upgrade our computer operating systems and applications software. We are making progress into turning these machines into appliances. We can look forward to computer systems that automatically load updates, replace and remove modules as needed, and repair and renovate automatically without a Microsoft engineer having to be present every time. This goal is the longest term one that I suggest, but perhaps the most critical. In time, artificial intelligence and smart software will remove us all from our part-time jobs of computer technicians and put the entire repair and upgrade process into the background, where it really belongs.