Part 4 of a 4-part series on identifying technology needs; see part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Back in the early days of computing, friends frequently asked those of us who worked at computer magazines what kind of computer to buy. The answer was always the same: what do you want to do with it? The response wasn’t meant to be snarky. The answer would be different based on whether you were doing games, graphics, or basic office tasks.
If anything, the answer is even more complex today, especially for small and midsize businesses, if only because there are so many more options. We’ve gone from a world of desktop PCs to one populated by desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, each one amazingly powerful and connected.
But there are also more options when it comes to acquiring and supporting hardware and software. So let’s take a few minutes to look at those three aspects: systems, how to acquire them, and technical support.
Employee Systems. This is tough because if you start by thinking about hardware, you miss the big picture. All companies, no matter what their size, run on information – items such as who called, how many widgets should we build, what’s the best way to communicate with my customers? Are most of your employees deskbound or mobile? Do they need to communicate with colleagues and customers regularly or periodically? What could you do more efficiently if you increased your employees’ ability to communicate, either electronically or by voice?
As winter approached, I had my gutters cleaned. Within 15 minutes after the workers had left, there was an invoice in my e-mail inbox. It had clearly been sent from the truck using a wireless device and either a broadband cellular or broadband data network (the first is optimized for voice, but accepts data; the other is vice versa). No waiting until the end of the week or month to send out invoices; talk about a smooth way to smooth out cash flow.
With mobile devices, you have to think about issues of battery life and wireless coverage, but generally the closer your employees are to data input and output devices, the more efficient they can be.
Back-Office Systems. The next aspect to look at is your back-office systems – the systems your employees will be accessing, whether from their desk or the field. Again, there have been all sorts of changes in this area. Ten years ago, you were highly like to have a Windows-based server or an AS/400 running business applications specific to your business. You can still do that today, but an even less-expensive option is not to own software at all.
Look at your options for what’s known as software-as-a-service, or SaaS. The best-known is probably Salesforce, which lets you keep track of customers and their preferences on a computer hosted by Salesforce itself. You and your employees access this information over the Internet, and you pay for the privilege on a monthly basis rather than by making a big, up-front investment. Upgrades are automatically included. Suddenly a big part of your computing costs become capital expenses rather than operational expenses, which makes them more predictable on an ongoing basis.
One caveat: if you’re going to take this route, make sure you have a highly reliable network. Otherwise, you put your employee productivity at risk.
Finally, you can turn to a local reseller or integrator to sell you your computing system. Having someone local is always valuable, and depending on your size and budget, they can also act as your IT department.
Technical Support. That brings us to the last facet – how to keep it up and running. As noted, you can hire the services of a local computing professional. Depending on the system, you can probably arrange for varying levels of support for lower costs. For instance, you may set up a contract whereby you can get service in two to four hours for your network, or within a day for your desktop computers.
This is one area where a hosted system comes in handy; if there’s a problem with a laptop, you can just have one or two in reserve. Swap the problematic one for another, and your employees can still access corporate data, because it doesn’t exist on the hard drive – it’s on the Internet. Nevertheless, having a reliable computer professional on hand can help you diagnose issues and give advice.
The great thing about having multiple options is not only flexibility, but also the range of pricing options available. More than ever before, small-to-midsize businesses can offload the headache of technology and just concentrate on deriving the benefits.