The current hoo-hah about advertised vs. actual speeds shouldn't detract from one of the biggest benefits of broadband — it allows home workers at least some form of access to the office network. Mums on school runs, carers for the elderly, those who actually believe the designated arrival times of gas company engineers — we all benefit from this flexibility.
For the firms whose business models allow the luxury of home working, IT is the great enabler. We're free, free from the office!
Flexible yes, but productive?
Early arguments about home workers’ productivity focused on the reliability of the IT and the potential for domestic distractions. Chatting about last night’s Eastenders around the office kettle is just part of office life; hanging the washing out while awaiting a critical phone call might not been seen in such a kindly light.
Nevertheless, issues of individual productivity are dealt with easily enough these days, while our computers, phones, routers and switches are generally up to the job.
There's an irony, though; communication technology means less communication — at least, of a face-to-face kind. The big question about home working is this: can a more dispersed employee base be such a good thing?
I'm not so sure. Our new IT tools are wonderful indeed, but can social media, instant messaging, conference calls et al really make up for a lack of face-to-face contact?
In praise of the office
Apart from its role as a company's central 'hub', the office provides priceless social interaction. An efficiently run office environment can be literally inspirational to those that work within it. Ideas can be floated, project teams constructed and product development nurtured.
What's more, office politics — a term too frequently used in a pejorative sense — are a necessary part of the ebb and flow of people and power that ultimately fuels a company's sense of, well, company. We’re all human, after all.
The character of a small business is defined as much by the interplay of its employees in the work environment as by its presentation of products to market. As IT allows ever more staff to work from home (the law obliges firms to consider employees' flexible working requests), don't we run the risk of dissolving the 'glue' which keeps our businesses together?
Sorry if I seem a bit out of breath, but apparently I can order my “.co” domain TODAY, so obviously I've been hurrying while stocks last.
Yes, you read that right – “.co”, not the far more cumbersome “.co.uk”. It’s been the country domain for Columbia, but for some reason anyone can now buy a “.co” to add to their collection of top level domains (TLDs).
To me it just looks like the first half of an aborted “.co.uk”, but the company selling it seemed very keen. I've been warned that if I wait, my very own “.co” may be taken by domain name squatters whose only intention is to slowly kill my business with their evil, squatty ways.
Do we really have to go through this? Whenever a new TLD comes on the market it feels like I'm being held to ransom. It was bad enough juggling “.co.uk”, “.com”, “.net”, “.org”, “.org.uk” and / or “.uk.com”.
Then they came up with “.biz” (which just looks wrong to me), “.eu” (for that chic, continental vibe), “.name” (so I could protect my, you know, name) and ".mobi", (for mobile-enabled sites apparently, although surely short of a couple of crucial characters).
What’s next, “.cockney”, sold with warnings about how I might miss out on the lucrative pearly king demographic? Or “.cheese”, sold on the promise that I’ll reach hitherto untapped markets of dairy enthusiasts?
I’m not sure how any of this helps small businesses. You can add all the domain extensions you like, but if the “.com” or “.co.uk” variant has gone, surely all you'll do with the others is set them to direct customers to your original site?
For big businesses and multinationals it certainly does make sense: they have to protect their brands across boundaries. But while small firms would also benefit from that belt and braces approach, just how practical is it to buy and manage 20 or more variants of a name?
Surely when the owner of gubbins.com wants to get closer to his market, he could use gubbinshealthspa.com (or whatever). In so doing he could separate himself from all the other Gubbinses but retain an established, recognisable TLD.
Following the recent post about what the disaster-struck didn’t do we'd love to hear where you store your backups, if you back anything up at all. Got any horror stories you'd like to share? Lost your entire client database? Or are you a backup angel? Are there any stories out there where your backups have saved the day?'
It seems ours is a world littered with TLAs. Sorry, perhaps you’ve not come across that particular TLA before – it stands for Three Letter Acronym. As the number of management theories and business technologies expands exponentially, those seeking to describe them have resorted to apparently simple TLAs to hide the literally breathtaking number of syllables they comprise. An example; printers used to be, well, just that — printers. But then someone combined them with a fax machine and a scanner. Such devices are thus labelled ‘multifunctional printer / fax / scanners’. Or multifunctional products. Or, better still, MFPs. Now I ask you, is MFP really an improvement? Business theory humdingers At least you can usually break technology-based TLAs down into their constituent chunks. That’s not so true of TLAs representing business theory. For every good one there are some real humdingers. For example, TQM might mean Total Quality Management and ERP Enterprise Resource Planning — but to an outsider, exactly what these theories involve is hard to guess. Good thing that SMEs rarely have time for such stuff. Like SME, CRM (Customer Relationship Management) is a relatively young TLA trying to make its way in the world. You might assume that such an awfully long phrase embraces a bewilderingly complex system of databases, training, communications technology and marketing nous. In fact, while you could quite happily spend your way into an off-the-shelf or bespoke CRM system to do all of that, it’s the ‘nous’ that’s most important. The blindingly obvious The reality is that CRM is much more than the software. In fact, CRM should first be seen as a formalised, systematic approach to the blindingly obvious – keeping your clients happy. Weaving that into your business infrastructure should come first, and then — only then — should you bring in the CRM software to help implement it. No system, however functional and customisable, can replace sound marketing logic and planning. So don't let salesmen tell you different — but hey, seeing as it's a salesman, why not pick their brains? After all, they're dealing with all sorts of businesses every day and they'll be happy to talk. Why not ask them what it is the best companies do to successfully introduce CRM? And what do those who blow it get wrong? It's an excellent way to figure out what needs to change — your management structure, maybe your product, even your business plan. Once you've done all that, choosing the right CRM software should be the easy part. As easy as ABC, in fact. Related links A detailed 8 part guide to CRM for small businesses: http://www.crmbuyer.com/story/69349.html A good breakdown of the different options when deciding on a CRM system: http://www.itexpertmag.com/client/managing-customer-relationships-with-crm-software
Please blow a raspberry in my general direction if you think this post is overly doom-mongering. But the sad fact is that many small businesses are totally unaware of how much of their data is at risk.
The main reason for this gap in disaster recovery policy is ignorance of the key facts. They're often straightforward but little known, so instead of giving you a jargon-filled list of technical terms, I’ll give you a list of things people usually forget to cover until it’s too late.
1. Backing up data at all. Don't fall into the trap of thinking "it'll never happen to me," because there are only two types of people in this world: those who have had a data loss and those who are about to.
2. Backing up data frequently enough. If you came into your office and realised that a vital quotation you prepared three days ago had been deleted, would you be happy that your weekly backup didn’t contain it?
3. Not backing up accounts data. Sensing a theme here yet? Many people assume that their network backup covers all their data. This isn't always true. Accounts data is sometimes stored on an individual PC that's not covered by the backup schedule.
4. Email. Many people don’t think they need to recover their email. Until they
lose it, that is. I’m talking about the messages that arrive in your inbox or are sat in your “Sent items” folder. These are increasingly used as evidence of a contract or as instruction to proceed.
5. File and folders. So you've got the obviously vital data, like your financial information covered. What about the seemingly mundane? Word documents, spreadsheets and databases can all contain important information. Make sure they can be recovered.
6. Storing information in the wrong place. When you hit save, do you know where the document is stored? Is it somewhere that is scheduled to be backed up? Saving your work on the desktop of your PC or in the My Documents folder isn’t much use if your backup only covers a shared folder on your network.
7. Contact and calendar information. In small networks your contact and calendar folders in Outlook are stored on your PC and may not get backed up. If you suffer a data disaster you'll be completely lost, with no idea who you were due to see and no way of contacting them.
8. Where your backups are kept. Do you use pen-drives, CDs, backup tapes or hard drives to backup your data? Great. But where do you keep them? Next to your PC or file server? Not so great. Even the best backup procedures become useless unless you store the data safely off your premises.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are probably other pockets of data you need to secure. The best way to think about it is to imagine what you can’t live without should disaster strike.
Think of the things you do on your PC each day. Don't worry about the software itself (you should have the original installation CDs for that), but question where the important data is situated. Make sure it's somewhere that's covered by your backup schedule. And if it isn't, fix it. Now. Because you never know when data loss might strike.
My mother is a middle aged woman, constantly travelling and in contact with the office. Her employer provides her with a Blackberry, which she takes everywhere, along with her address book. That’s right, an analogue, paper, not-HD address book.
Last time I was unfortunate enough to delve into her handbag I also found a satellite navigation device, thousands of little bits of paper with illegible scribbles on them, a calculator and a camera. She also takes her laptop with her just in case she decides to check her email or buy some ‘bargains’ on eBay.
Making life easier
The mobile my mother has now could comfortably replace everything except the lipstick and car keys in her handbag. I’ve tried to explain this many times, demonstrating how brilliant the technology is, but she’s just not interested. The same is true for many people. They like doing it their way and see no reason to change.
A fear of change, the unknown, and good old fashioned stubbornness are causing her not to adopt this technology – even though the manufacturers tell us it would make her life much easier. Do people feel that way in your company?
Would they use it?
The word ‘trust’ comes up a lot. Many people just don’t trust new technologies. My mother chooses to spend hours on hold to call centres in India rather than bank online. She says she doesn’t ‘trust’ the internet and she would rather speak to a person on the phone. What does she think the person on the other end of the phone is doing? Carting around £50 notes in a wheelbarrow from account to account?
So, if you gave your employees smart phones, would they use them? I sure would. I’d be able to synchronise my calendar, check emails on the go ... maybe even make the odd phone call. For someone like my mum, on the other hand, it would be a waste of money. She doesn’t even use the built in address book which mobiles have had since their conception.
As a business, you have to weigh the cost of the technology against the time and effort you could save. Continued training will be required for some users (this costs time and money) - others will find using the technology comes as naturally as using a pen and paper.
Security and trust
Smart phones can mean added security risks. Staff might save passwords for the work network or for business applications. That means if someone was to steal the phone, they could potentially access confidential and sensitive information.
“But you can password protect your phone” I hear you scream. My Mum has a post-it note stuck to her laptop with her password on it. I imagine many are the same. It seems people simply can’t be bothered with passwords.
Further abuse of the company iPhone might come from those who are more familiar with it. There are thousands of applications and games available for smart phones. Will your employees’ productivity be affected by the temptation of games? Will they buy them on the company contract?
In summary, every business is different. Whether smart phones are right for you depends on the people, the nature of the organisation and simply whether you need to stay constantly connected. If you have a busy, mobile workforce then issuing smart phones might make them much more productive. If everyone’s based in the office all the time then they’ll end up as little more than expensive toys.
I’m certain of this; these devices aren’t going to go away. They will become more commonplace in the work and home environment and I think they will enhance the way we work and play, just as desktop computers have done already. The sooner we embrace the technology the sooner we can reap its benefits and spend more time doing less mundane, more productive and more fun tasks.
My final thought; if you are in the market for a smart phone, make sure you research all your options. Apple isn’t the only one producing these little gems.
Look, I’m just going to come out and say it - I like spreadsheets. I also like greenfinches, the music of Debussy and the plays of Jez Butterworth - but it’s the spreadsheet thing that worries people most.
Let them mock. I mean, spreadsheets - where would we be without ‘em? Most businesses need to store at least some of their data in a spreadsheet file, while for some there’s a constant need to send spreadsheets from one partner or client to another. Microsoft’s Excel has become the standard for this sort of thing.
For much of its life, Excel serves merely as a means for storing, packaging and distributing data; you squirt it from one system into Excel, then send it off to be squirted into something else. It’s these other systems - accounts packages, customer relationship management (CRM) programs - that do the data analysis.
This is fine if you run CRM packages, but many small businesses rely on their office suite software. Understandably, such firms try to make the most of Excel for analysing data as well as storing it.
The trouble with spreadsheets
The trouble is that spreadsheets can only go so far. Let’s say you want to track Mavis’s expense claims for sandwiches. You can see how much she spends in one week, a month, a year - but what do you do if you decide to look at what she spends on tuna compared to cheese?
Sure, you can add that detail. But how about tuna or cheese on white bread, tuna or cheese on brown? How about the data from year one compared to year two? The more you add, the trickier it gets to maintain. And that’s just sandwiches.
The solution is a database. Plenty of proprietary database programs cost less than Microsoft Excel itself, and they make it easier to structure data, to add summaries and ‘what if’ calculations - and, by tying one set of data to another, to run most of your business processes.
There’s a problem, though, and it’s a biggie. These programs make data analysis easier - but only if you know how to operate them. Understandably, you might think you’re spending more than enough time on this kind of thing as it is.
Invest time, save money?
If you’re to make your investment in them worthwhile, database programs demand much more of your attention. But accounts and CRM packages are just databases themselves; if you’re handy with Excel, you could put the same effort into a database and save yourself the expense of a CRM package. Project management, diaries, document storage, strategy - they can handle the lot.
So - plug alert - this is why you’ll love the IT Donut. We’re going to have experts who can advise you on how to make the most of your company’s data without breaking the bank. And if you do end up engaging with them, try to remember that while they may indeed like spreadsheets, experts are people too.