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Posts for November 2011

How to know what's best for your business

November 30, 2011 by Robert Davies

Thumbs up and thumbs down{{}}

People who run businesses are always on the lookout for what is best for their company. And when people in business ask for help with technology, they get a number of equally firm but often contradictory answers.

At best this is confusing. At worst it can harm a business. As a business owner, what can you do about this?

Why the confusion?

Let’s start with why it happens. People who work with technology become very invested in that technology. It’s not just a financial investment - it’s also the huge about of time and energy they spend learning about and staying current with a way of working and thinking.

This breeds the kind of deep seated loyalty that is normally associated with fans. In fact, your typical computer worker is not that different from a football fan.  When you ask ‘what is best for my business?’ the answer is often skewed by that inherent devotion.

You also have to deal with conservatism. Everyone working with technology knows that if they make a mistake with their advice then the financial cost to a business could be significant. Computer hardware and business software alters and adjusts how people work. Get the answer wrong and you could lose a company a fortune in man hours.

The result is a set of standard answers that you’d never get fired for giving. The most common one is Microsoft Office. It is widely accepted as being the best and most standard piece of office software. The only choice, in other words.

However I typed this article on a small laptop away from the office, using Google Docs. I find the simpler display of Google Docs useful and since the article was stored online, in the cloud, it was easy for me to return to it once I was back in the office.

That’s just one example. When you get into the various arguments for and against, PC, Mac, iPhone, Android, Linux, Windows and the rest then the situation becomes almost impossible to sort out.

The key technology questions

Fortunately there is a way to solve this problem. Instead of getting brow beaten by conventional answers, ask some pertinent business questions. Get the answers to these and you’ll be able to shortlist your options:

1.  How much does it cost?

Can you afford what you are being offered? That means not just now, but months or years down the line when you need to expand or replace equipment. If the answer is no then you need to think about other choices.  (Think about your IT budget.)

2.  Does it suit how you work?

Try this thought experiment: will your new IT work well with the different ways you want yourself and your staff to work? Can you foresee any way it might not be able to work, or any scenarios where it could add extra time to your working practices?

3. Is it expandable and reliable?

This is an easy one. If the reliability isn’t demonstrable, don’t do it. And if the proposed technology can’t scale beyond your current needs, be wary. Switching to an alternative when you outgrow it can be very expensive.

4.  Is it easy to use?

How long does it take to train someone to use it? Training time costs money, and so do mistakes when something is hard to use. If there’s a choice between ‘easy’ and ‘hard’, always look for easy.

Notice anything interesting about this list? It does not talk about specifications or features. There are good reasons for this. Features are driven by business need. Your business needs determine what you require - there is no magic feature set that works equally well for everyone.

This is also true of specifications. Technology is now pretty mature. This means that buying by specification is less important. Again, needs must drive your decisions – don’t let a cool and glittering list of specs deflect your decision making.

Finally, what is best is what provides your business the best combination of price, reliability and flexibility. That probably isn’t the cool tech of the moment. Remember that a moment is not forever - but your business is.

Rob Davies is from internet specialists Kashiko.

When it comes to email replies, is faster better?

November 24, 2011 by Monica Seeley

Urgent stamp – but not all email is urgent{{}}

A few years ago you might have expected to receive a response to an email within a few days, or even a week. However, a recent survey of 100 organisations conducted by Mesmo, my consultancy, reveals that a quarter of people expect a response within the hour. Over a third of people expect a response within two hours, and over two thirds within half a day.

In fact, only a quarter of people think it’s acceptable to wait a day for a response. A tiny seven per cent of people are prepared to wait two days.

We’re making unnecessary mistakes

These expectations are driven by our ‘always on’ culture of email, smart phones and social media. We pressure ourselves into thinking that most email has to be answered as soon as it arrives.

But actually, it’s a bit like driving: the faster we respond, the more damage we do when we make mistakes. We are confusing speed of email response with effectiveness – in essence, we’re allowing the technology to dictate how we work.

Putting ourselves under pressure to respond to emails quickly only adds to the email overload that’s rife in companies today. It’s time to reduce this overload and set more realistic timescales for replies – allowing enough time for a considered response.

Interestingly, the pressure to reply quickly seems to lie in the mind of the recipient. I’ve interviewed many senior managers who have been surprised by how quickly people respond to their emails.

The survey bears this out. It shows that most respondents (83%) felt that internal senders expect a quicker reply than external senders, and that 87% believed senior managers expected a faster response than junior managers.

The devices we use for our email play a role too. Over three quarters of respondents strongly believed that people picking up email on smart phones expect a faster reply than those dealing with email on their computer.

We don’t give people enough time to reply properly

The survey also highlights double standards around email response times. Although most of us now expect a response within half a day, 60% of respondents admitted they only sometimes left people sufficient time to respond to their emails and only a third (39%) of survey respondents thought they ‘frequently’ left enough time.

In other words, we’re sending messages requesting a fast response, even though we know we’re not giving the person on the other end enough time to craft a considered reply. This is a worrying trend, as emails often need a substantive response.

Break the cycle

It can become a vicious circle. The more you respond quickly, the more people who send you emails will expect fast replies.

To help break this cycle, we could all do with improving our email etiquette. For instance, you can add a line to your email signature stating that you check your email at regular intervals, but not as each email arrives.

Alternatively, use an auto response with the same message. Or take a lead from organisations that state on their website how long a response will take. You can certainly  create a framework for use within your company, and even make it part of your email policy.

Respond in haste and repent at leisure has been the mantra of many who have found their emails used as evidence in a dispute. An incorrect or badly-thought-through response can be costly. This survey confirms that it’s time for us all to recalibrate our email expectations.

Monica Seeley is an email overload and email etiquette specialist who runs Mesmo, a company offering training, coaching and other consultancy services to help businesses use technology more effectively.

Brand doesn't matter in the workplace, reckons maker of 'terrorist watch'

November 21, 2011 by John McGarvey

Broken down car, like unreliable business IT{{}}

Does your business IT break down often? (Image: fauxto_digit on Flickr.)

Japanese electronics firm Casio found itself on the wrong end of a news story earlier this year when classified documents released on WikiLeaks linked the company's F-91W digital watch with terrorists.

Never mind that the watch is a popular, affordable model which has been a huge seller for years - apparently US officials still considered it a possible sign of terrorist links.

Perhaps keen to put this association behind it, the firm recently commissioned some research to find out just how big a role brand plays in business IT purchasing decisions.

Does brand matter in the workplace?

We all know that certain brands have more power than others. For the real heavyweights, look not further than Interbrand's list of top brands.

But does that power translate to the workplace? When business owners are considering a new IT purchase, does the pull of the brand make them more likely to opt for Apple over a no-name PC from a local supplier?

According to the YouGov research Casio commissioned, the answer is a definite no. Just 1% of British workers surveyed reckoned brand was an important factor in choosing office technology.

When asked to give the most important factors, respondents rated reliability top and performance second.

It's not just the cool factor

But if the most important factor is reliability, how do you judge that? Aren't some brands perceived as more reliable than others?

Whether you're buying technology, toiletries or t-shirts, brand perception isn't just about the 'cool factor'. It's composed of all sorts of elements, unique to each specific brand.

Some brands are perceived as rock-solid reliable. Others as cheap and disposable. That's just the way it is.

Sure, there are lots of ways for business owners and IT managers to judge reliability. Their own experiences, product reviews and recommendations can all play a part. But survey results be damned: I find it hard to believe than brand isn't part of that mix at all.

Quite simply, some brands are perceived as being more reliable than others. And if you're investing in IT for your business, those perceptions may well influence your decisions.

Do you think some technology brands are more reliable than others? Does that affect your purchasing choices? Leave a comment and let us know.

Why graduates should look to tech start-ups

November 17, 2011 by PostDesk

Sam England of PostDesk recently caught up with Songkick founder Pete Smith to ask him about start-ups recruiting new graduates:

Keyboard with graduate symbol on{{}}I’m co-founder of east London-based startup Songkick, the company behind Silicon Milkroundabout, which brings together over 100 UK start-ups offering more than 500 tech jobs. We held our first event back in May and our second in October.

The idea came about over a pint with Ian, one of my co-founders. We were discussing a common problem. When recruiting graduates, many start-ups, say, looking for a graduate to fill a software developer post, struggle to compete against large employers, such as the big banks.

It’s good for graduates to think smaller

Silicon Milkroundabout encourages graduates to think about working for start-ups rather than a bank or other large corporate. I’m not totally against working for a large bank or corporate, of course. For some, it can be the right decision.

But graduates should know other options exist and that start-ups can be the answer when making important career decisions. Often people can get the wrong idea about working for a start-up, that it’s risky, for example, or that they’d need to waste loads of time visiting hundreds of offices until they find somewhere they really want to work.

In many cases, working for a start-up can be more rewarding. Often you get more choice about whom you work with and what you work on. I meet a lot of people who work in start-up engineering teams and usually they love the product they work on.

And whether they have business or consumer users, they know what their users do with their products and receive feedback immediately after release. That’s extremely rewarding when you’re building something you actually care about.

You learn how to run a company

Ultimately, if you have ambitions one day to start your own company, there’s no better way to learn the ropes than to spend a few years at a small company, so you can see how it is run and grown.

Things have changed. Tech start-ups now have the DNA of product and engineering teams. No longer are they two MBA guys raising a bit of money and getting some dude in Eastern Europe to build the website, as was often the case five years ago in London.

Just as you can go into a tech job at a bank thinking it’s going to be pretty secure (and you’ll make a bit of money), you can go into a start-up knowing 18 months or two years will go by before the next funding round is needed.

You may think it will get profitable in that time (and you’ll make a bit of money). Go into it with your eyes open and it’s a nice period of time to work with people you like, on a product you enjoy.

I don’t believe in the natural attrition rate of start-ups. Make wise decisions and your business shouldn’t fail.

My advice to graduates? Be smart. Choose a start-up with a plan you feel comfortable with. Ask yourself – “Do I trust the founders, the CTO and the developers?” If you can truly trust them to make smart decisions, there’s a very good chance you’ll make the right career move.

Pete Smith founded Songkick, a website and mobile app which lets people track concerts happening in their area.

This is an edited version of an interview that first appeared on the PostDesk blog.

How to understand IT support

November 16, 2011 by Maff Rigby

Car warning lights – get IT support help when you’re in trouble{{}}Many small companies struggle when it comes to IT support. When you do it right, it helps your business get on with things. In short: it’s important. Yet the job of providing IT support is often regarded as painful and costly.

No matter whether you outsource IT support to an IT support company or keep it in-house, it’s important to understand the basics. It’ll help you avoid the pitfalls of IT support.

Prioritise your business IT support

Understanding your business priorities and using them when prioritising IT support requests helps you to remain laser focused, working solely on the problems that are stopping you delighting your customers and increasing revenue.

Remember: you don’t need to fix every IT problem! As long as you are prioritising IT support issues in line with what your business needs to deliver, the low priority issues can wait.

Just be sure to review support issues regularly with your key stakeholders (your employees, probably), to make sure your IT support priorities reflect their needs and – more importantly – those of your customers.

Look for workarounds wherever possible. They might not provide a perfect fix, but they get things working again faster so you can minimise disruption and investigate a proper fix for the issue later.

Keep calm and carry on

I’m always amazed at the different responses people have when they encounter an IT issue. They can range from a resigned “we’re doomed” to an over-the-top “argh, we need to fix this ASAP” panic!

A good incident manager (the person who manages your IT issues) will keep their head, remain objective and gather the information required to make informed decisions, even in a crisis.

Even if something’s actually gone ‘BANG’, the secret is to stay calm. Gather the facts and bring the right people together to understand the issue. Again, prioritise things according to the priorities of the business. Once you’ve understood what’s gone wrong, you can make an informed decision about when and how to fix the issue.

Fix it yourself

Create and use an internal knowledge base so your employees can help themselves and each other with IT problems. This could be a simple page on your company intranet, a collaborative blog or wiki, or simply an Excel spreadsheet or Word document that you keep updated with information about how to fix IT issues.

Keep track of your IT support

It’s critical that you track your support issues and problems, so you don’t let any slip through the gaps. Regardless of whether you decide to fix them or not, you need to understand the type and number of IT issues you are dealing with.

Do this in a way that is simple to manage and update, and which (most importantly) works for you. I often find tracking your issues on a whiteboard is extremely effective, especially when you’re dealing with a major issue like a server failure or network outage!

Alternatively you can use a simple Excel spreadsheet to track your issues, though this can become a burden if the size of your organisation and the number of IT issues you face increases.

Maff Rigby has over 12 years of experience in IT support and operations management. He is the founder of IT SmartDesk – a social IT service management platform which enables an organisation’s IT users to help themselves and each other.

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Conference calls aren't just for big businesses

November 14, 2011 by Andrew Pearce

Telephone handset{{}}

Waiting for the phone to ring...(Image: Richard Stebbing on Flickr.)

If the nature of your business means you and your employees have to meet clients and associates regularly, then investing in a conference call service can be the best way to coordinate your business operations.

Conference calls are becoming increasingly popular with small businesses. A good conference call service will let you hold vital meetings with employees and clients without you all having to get together in the same place. It means you spend less time and money on travel.

What is conference calling?

A conference call is a telephone call which involves more than two people. They must be, of course, calling from more than two phones.

A conference call organiser can simple allow participants to listen to a single person speaking (good for giving presentations, and often called an audio tele-conference, or ATC). Or they can choose to allow everyone to speak, structuring the call as a meeting to which everyone is able to contribute.

Each participant in a conference call is given a special dial-in number which connects them to the conference bridge. This links all the participants together so the call can take place – even if people are in different countries. Once they’ve dialled the number, participants usually have to identify themselves by entering a special PIN number.

To hold conference calls, you need to sign up to a service provider which can provide the necessary dial-in phone and PIN numbers.

Why hold conference calls?

When people are far away from each other, conference calls can take the place of face-to-face meetings, enabling businesses to cut down on costs incurred by travel and the cost of the time it takes to do so.

They also make it easier for people working together to catch-up regularly.

What kind of meetings can we hold using conference calls?

Use them for sales presentations, client meetings, training sessions, team meetings, project meetings and regular catch-ups. Anything you like, in fact, that requires the presence of more than two people.

You can also use conference calls in conjunction with web conferencing. This allows you to share and display documents like corporate reports, company data and sales figures.

Why not use Skype or a similar service?

Instant-messaging and voice over IP software Skype does let you hold calls with up to 25 people. However, it’s a free service which relies on everyone having access to the software and a fast, stable internet connection. With a paid-for service, you have the assurance that the service is of a high quality, and you have some comeback in the unlikely event of anything going wrong.

A good conference call service can save your business time and money. So why not give one a go?

Andrew Pearce is CEO of Powwownow, the UK’s leading free conference call provider.

It's time to loosen up your business IT

November 11, 2011 by John McGarvey

Relaxing on the beach{{}}

Put your feet up and relax about your business IT (Image: Cristian Borquez on Flickr)

There's nothing wrong with being risk averse, and there's nothing wrong with not wanting your staff to do silly things or waste time with their company computers.

Those are the - perfectly logical reasons - why many businesses lock down their systems tightly. They want to stop employees opening the wrong kinds of files, installing dodgy software or accessing social networks.

Fine. But as someone who's fairly IT literate, I've always found locked-down PCs highly offputting. By and large, I know what I'm doing and I know what I need to do my job. I just want the IT department to let me get on with it.

Young workers want more flexibility

A recent piece of research has got me wondering whether this might be a growing sentiment. The 2011 Cisco Connected World Technology Report suggests that young workers (by which it means students and professionals under 30) take many factors into account when deciding where they want to work.

It's not all about the salary - the internet, flexibility and social networks can all make a difference. For instance:

  • More than half of students either wouldn't accept a job offer from a company that banned access to social media, or would find a way to circumvent the ban.
  • One in four employees say that not being able to work remotely and flexibly would influence their job decisions - they might leave a job sooner, for instance.
  • Two out of five people would opt for a lower paying job over a higher paying one, if it offered more flexibility over use of IT and social media, and more mobility.

The overall impression is that younger workers want more choice over what IT they use and how they use it at work.

They want more flexibility in where and when they work. And they want to be allowed to use social networks because they believe services like Facebook and Twitter are key communication tools.

Is it time to loosen up your IT?

I can almost hear the tuts from IT managers at the idea of loosening restrictions, allowing people to use their own devices and turning off web blocking software.

But here's the thing: it's happening already, whether you like it or not. If you've blocked Facebook on your work computers, your employees will just be accessing it on their phones.

Then you've got mobile devices. You might think you've banned staff using their own mobile gadgets for work. But what's to stop them loading documents onto their iPad to review on the train, or connecting a smart phone to the company Wi-Fi?

Times are changing for office IT

Times are changing. The so-called 'millennials' - the next generation of workers - have grown up using IT and computers their entire lives. We don't need to teach them how to use it at work, because they already know.

Maybe, just maybe, if we open systems up and give people more freedom to use the tools and devices they want, they'll be able to do better work.

Will economic recovery be driven by tech companies or start-ups?

November 07, 2011 by Andrew Miller

Dell Solutions{{}}Both the technology industry and UK start-ups are crucial in determining the health of the nation’s economy, but which holds the key to the economic recovery?

In October, technology experts and entrepreneurs were invited to fight it out in attempt to answer this question as part of the Dell Solutions Tour. It all happened in Twickenham, under the watchful eye of referee Charles Ward from Intellect.

The power of start-ups

Championing the cause for start-ups, entrepreneurs Dan Scarfe from Dot Net Solutions and Chris Book from Bardowl kicked off proceedings. They used some impressive figures to highlight the power of start-ups.

Half a million start-ups set up shop each year and 49 per cent of turnover comes from small companies. What’s more, research from the US has demonstrated that existing firms lose one million jobs per year whereas new firms are generating three million each year.

Small businesses need technology

But technology champions Tristan Wilkinson from Intel and James Griffiths from Dell were quick to point out that technology is at the heart of the small business community. They said 99 per cent of start-ups are either building innovations on existing technology or enabling their business growth through efficient use of technology.

While hardware and structured technology sit firmly in the realm of large businesses with the resources needed to develop them, start-ups have the freedom and flexibility to innovate in the service and software space. But as Dan noted: “start-ups can scale fast and fail fast.”  

We all need technology

Surely technology is an enabler for both small and large businesses alike? Tristan highlighted that we’re not even close to breaching the limits of technology.

After all, the power of technology is universal. The mobile device in your pocket has more computing power than was used to put a man on the moon. What’s more, technology empowers people to work on their own terms and on the things they’re most interested in.

In effect, argued James, it’s technology which enables today’s small businesses to exist. It’s also levelled the playing field between start-ups and larger companies - it’s never been easier to get your message out there and alongside the established corporate players.

Perhaps the most fitting conclusion came from referee Charles who noted that this is the classic ‘chicken versus egg’ argument.

Technology and start-ups go hand-in-hand. Remove technology and you limit start-ups. Remove start-ups and you limit the innovation that is so important for the economy. So, far from fighting it out in the ring, our panel experts fast realised a love-in was more in order.

This is a guest post from Dell Small & Medium Business.

The internet is running out of room

November 02, 2011 by Leon Penny

Photo of crowds{{}}

The internet is going to run out of room soon (Image: James Cridland on Flickr.)

It has long been accepted that the internet is vital to business operations. Even the smallest firms now rely on a web presence to attract custom and convert interest into sales.

Such exponential growth has been flagged as an issue for many years. As far back as the early 90s, the Internet Engineering Task Force realised that a way needed to be found to conserve address space. It was inevitable that the web would eventually reach its capacity.

More space for everyone

The problem lies with IP (internet protocol) addresses. Each device on the internet is allocated an IP address. These unique numbers allow those devices to communicate with each other.

The first publicly used version of IP addresses was IPv4, which allowed a capacity for 4.3 billion addresses. At the time, that figure probably seemed more than adequate. However, as internet use has exploded with servers, phones and other devices all requiring their own IP addresses, it’s become clear that 4.3 billion is not enough.

Are you ready for IPv6?

Twenty years on and the answer to this predicament has arrived in the form of IPv6, a new version of the internet protocol system. This theoretically offers a further 340 trillion, trillion, trillion addresses. It’s an impressive and welcome addition, but one that presents a challenge to every small business in the world.

We’re now entering a period of transition between IPv4 and IPv6. During this time, IPv4 will be phased out. New enterprises will automatically be set up in IPv6 and many businesses will migrate to the new protocol. In fact, since the late 1990s many products have been built with IPv6 capabilities - including widely-used operating systems and mobile phones.

As most businesses see the internet as critical to their operations, migrating to IPv6 is a sensible move. There will come a time when IPv4 public addresses no longer exist, so it would be wise to cater for partners and customers with both versions now. This will ensure that no issues arise further down the line.

Getting started with IPv6

It will be much more cost-effective for businesses to start implementing IPv6 now, if only gradually at first. Carrying out a mass overhaul when IPv4 disappears could be time-consuming and disruptive. But how do you get started?

Well, some companies may be already running on IPv6 without knowing it. New operating systems and applications will be IPv6-enabled, so you might simply need to update your firewall or router. Larger firms may require a more complex reconfiguration. It’s also important to check that service providers (like your web hosting company) are IPv6 ready.

As each business is different, individual implementation plans will need to be drawn up. If you rely on an external IT supplier, speaking to them is a good place to start.

By being proactive and planning ahead to make IPv6 fully operational, companies can steal a march on competitors who are sitting back to assess what happens. 

SynergyPlus provides telephony and technology solutions for businesses.

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