Back when I studied electric fish I learned a valuable lesson from my research advisor: not all criticism in my professional life would be phrased with concern for my ego’s ongoing desire to inflate. The following episode, which also provided a second invaluable insight, led me to this conclusion.

My research involved a quantitative analysis of behavior. After some nasty FORTRAN programming and some manual charting and graphing, I showed it to my advisor.

“What’s it mean?” he asked. My answer involved the mathematics of information theory, capped by a precise measure of the communication between two interacting fish. Nobel Prize material.

“But what’s it mean?” he asked again, impatiently. When he failed to hear a satisfactory answer he told me to stop bothering him until I could explain it in English. I knew the number, but not what it meant.

Just for giggles, let’s take the same potshot at a basic number used in the specs for information systems: response time.

Oh, the concept is fine. Unfortunately, we usually measure it in units of time, which demonstrates our lack of insight into its meaning.

“The benchmark transaction completed in .782 seconds,” we might say. Or, in comparing brands and models of personal computer, “Model A completed our benchmark task in 1 minute 34 seconds, clearly outperforming Model B which completed it in 1 minute 51 seconds.”

Precise, measures, yes, but they mean very little.

The reason? Look from a customer-value perspective, remembering that “Customers define value,” is the first of the three rules of management. Response time isn’t a continuous numeric quantity. Customer-valued response time (for most of us) has only six values, and none of them is a number. Those values are Eye-blink, Quick, Pause, Delay, Break, and Overnight. To elaborate:

An eye-blink is, from a customer perspective, instantaneous. Never mind that sufficiently sensitive instruments can measure it. It takes place faster than a person’s ability to notice. Eye-blink response time is perfect. You can’t improve on it.

Quick processes happen fast enough that users don’t pay attention to them. The wait is noticeable, but not obtrusive. When we talk about “sub-second response time” we’re really saying we need it to be quick.

A pause breaks our rhythm, but doesn’t let us do anything else useful. Lots of computer processes cause us to pause. Printing a one-page memo results in a pause. So can saving a long document to disk or downloading a small, well-constructed Web page from an adequately powered server via modem. Likewise database updates when response time is bad. Pauses are awfully annoying. Every pause requires the exercise of patience, and each of us has only a fixed amount of patience available for our use each day.

Delays take longer than pauses – enough longer to do something useful. We can take a gulp of coffee during a delay. Sharpen a pencil. Dial a telephone number. File a document. In many respects a delay, while longer than a pause, tries our patience less. Loading nearly any application in Windows causes a delay. So do most Web pages.

Breaks are even better than delays. You can refill your coffee mug during a break. Ask your boss a quick question. File several documents. Booting your computer gives you a break. So does faxing a document through your fax/modem, or running a report off a medium-sized database.

Anything longer than a break may as well wait until you leave for the night. Start it up, go home, see the result the next morning. If you want to be daring, start it up before you leave for a meeting instead.

That’s it. Six possible response times. You haven’t improved response time until you cross a boundary from one to the other.

And that’s not always an improvement, because sometimes, you just need a break.

Quite a few years ago, I briefly joined a subcommittee of a national telecommunications managers association. The subcommittee’s issue: Telecommunications as a Strategic Resource. (“Telecommunications, in this context, means voice communications technology.)

The first twenty minutes of the meeting consisted of a bunch of telecom managers explaining how important telecommunications is to the organization, and on techniques for communicating this fact to senior management. The short version: if a company loses dial-tone it has a big problem, so telecommunications is strategic.

Because I doze off in meetings if I don’t occasionally speak, I offered a suggestion: “If we want to be viewed as a strategic resource, maybe our first step should be making sure we are a strategic resource.”

As I said, I joined only briefly. They never told me the time and place of the next meeting.

As a character in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s science fiction novels used to say, “We can’t all play first-chair violin. Some of us have to push air through the tubas.” Not everything we do is strategic. Sometimes we have to settle for importance.

IS has three distinct, important roles to play. Borrowing from military and game theory, we can call them Strategic, Tactical, and Logistic contributions to company success.

Logistics is the art of making sure the troops have everything they need to win. It includes getting them to the battlefield on time, making sure they have food and ammunition … all those little details that matter so much when two armies are trying to kill each other.

Translated to the business world, logistics includes everything that supplies employees with the basics they need to do their jobs – telephone service, voice and electronic mail, perhaps a word processor and spreadsheet. Stuff like that. Logistic services don’t add value so much as their absence subtracts value. They’re like plumbing – it’s not strategic, but if the pipes break you have a big mess on your hands.

Tactics covers the detailed maneuvers that have to be orchestrated to win a particular battle. Napoleon, for example, was a master tactician, noted for his ability to pin an opposing force in place through a feint to the front while having his cavalry attack from a different, unexpected direction, confusing his enemy and ultimately destroying it.

In business, tactics includes all core processes and the applications that support them. Do you have an order-entry call center? Improving how you run it gives you a tactical advantage. Do you use a workflow/imaging/document management system? If so, you’re probably using it to tactical advantage. In fact, everything you do to improve the business you’re in today has to do with either logistics or tactics. IS expends most of its time and attention in pursuit of its logistic and tactical roles in the organization. As it should. You have to survive until the future gets here, after all.

How about strategy? That deals with larger-scale objectives. Is your company market, product, or competency driven? That’s a strategic decision. Does it try to define market dynamics, or does it look for unexploited market niches? Does it compete on price or does it try to support high margins through exceptional service? Does it innovate, or perfect and integrate the innovations of others? All of these are strategic issues, as are decisions regarding what new product categories, markets, or competencies will be needed to thrive in the future.

IS has a vital role in helping companies achieve strategic goals. You take the first step, of course, when you understand the difference between IS’s strategic role and its logistic and tactical roles. You take the second when you take the time to understand and internalize the company’s strategy.

That’s when you’re ready to engage in a dialog with your company’s leadership to mutually decide what new technologies, technical capabilities, applications and infrastructure the company will need to achieve its strategic goals.