True confession: The Lotus I prefer is either the real sports car or the mythical fruit (you know, land of the lotus-eaters) and spreadsheets is something I do when I make my bed.

Nevertheless, I am painfully aware that Lotus 1-2-3 is the choice spreadsheet for millions of IBM-PCniks and PC-clonesters who believe that reality can be modeled as a 256-column-by-256-row matrix.

Lotus has, in fact, become something of a standard in personal computerdom. Virtually all "power users" of PCs have some acquaintance with the program (in its several versions) and software companies have been trying to figure out how to make their programs compatible with Lotus formats.

So there are Lotus templates; there are "natural language" interfaces to Lotus to make it easier to use by dullards like myself; and other software designed to piggyback on Lotus' success.

But how can software really "add value" to your Lotus spreadsheets in a way that can turn it into an even more powerful information processing tool?

For a stiff price -- $695 -- General Optimization Inc., based in Chicago, offers an intriguing package that can zoom Lotus into lofty regions of business planning.

General Optimization cleverly answers the Lotus spreadsheet builder's question "What if?" into an answer that happens to be the name of its software -- "What'sBest!."

What'sBest is a program that generates best possible, or "optimal," solutions to many classes of problems.

"Any problem where you have scarce resources that have to be allocated over optional activities -- all of which call upon your scarce resources," said General Optimization President Sam Savage, lends itself to a What'sBest optimal solution.

For example:

*How to schedule staff rotations at a hospital so people get the time off they want.

*How an advertising agency with a limited budget can figure out which media it should buy and how often in order to reach its target audience.

*What the optimal nutritive feed blend is for cows in Wisconsin.

*What the best possible risk/return bond portfolio is for a Salomon Bros.

*How a lumber company can get the optimal return per tree: number of toothpicks, chair legs, paper pulp or baseball bats.

What'sBest relies on a branch of mathematics called "linear programming" that enables one to determine the best possible solution given contraints and limitations. What'sBest uses the Simplex method of linear programming.

The beauty of What'sBest is three-fold: one, it's fairly easy to use; two, it plays perfectly off the spreadsheet; and, three, it requires virtually no knowledge of linear programming.

"We're trying to bring optimization to the masses," Savage said.

Basically, the user creates a spreadsheet template that models the business problem to be optimized. Then using what What'sBest calls "the A-B-Cs of Optimization," the model is constructed for a simplex optimization.

*"A" stands for "adjustable cells" -- that is, the spreadsheet cells that will be selected as key variables.

*"B" stands for "Best" -- pick the cell to be minimized (say, costs) or maximized (say, profits).

*"C" stands for contraints -- the What'sBest user must select the contraints under which the optimization labors (say, no more than three days, nor more than $12,0000.

This obviously is powerful and nontrivial stuff. Indeed, General Optimization has worked out an agreement with Arthur Young, the accounting firm, to give seminars on What'sBest.

Some warnings: although linear programming is an important mathematical tool, it must be used with extreme caution. Mathematical optimizations usually do not translate into real world successes. Linear programming solutions are not very flexible if changes in circumstances materialize.

Also, even though you don't need a firm grasp of linear programming modeling to use What'sBest, you really should. Just as poets shouldn't pretend they can do quantum physics, spreadsheet jockeys shouldn't assume they are mathematicians.

On the other hand, optimization techniques offered by What'sBest represents the intelligent application of a useful technique for spreadsheet users. It is likely a sign of what we'll be seeing in the future.

(General Optimization Inc., 2251 North Geneva Terrace, Chicago, Ill., 60614, (312) 248-7300.)