Technology can be a very valuable tool for business owners trying to streamline their businesses and increase productivity--and just make their lives easier--but it's a tool that's multifaceted, complex and just a plain mystery to some. If used effectively, you'll reap huge benefits for your business, but using it improperly may mean more inefficient systems, lost customers and a host of other problems.
When it comes to managing your technology needs, there are a number of challenges facing business owners today. The four biggest ones are a lack of education about technology options, an inability to prioritize which technologies are most important at what time, how to go about integrating technology into your business and, finally, how to protect it. Let's talk about that lack of education first.
Lack of Education
Although it seems that technology gets easier and easier to use every year, for many, technology is still a "closed box." And this closed box creates a digital divide. Take your website, for instance. It's pretty easy to create one, but the digital divide part comes into play when your competitor has features on their site that enables them to provide better customer service than yours does. And while it's easy to blame your weaker site on a lack of money, that's most likely not the reason your competition has a feature that your site doesn't. The real reason is that they had the vision (or education, if you will) to hire an expert or do it by themselves using a low-cost hosted application.
What it comes down to is this: Because you didn't know you could add an instant chat tool to your website for just a few dollars per month--and probably didn't even know such a service existed--you didn't have it on your website and your competitor did.
So how can you educate yourself about what's out there that you should have?
- Set a goal to read the technology sections of a few small-business-focused magazines on a weekly or monthly basis, or subscribe to a few free online newsletters focused on small-business technology.
- Regularly keep in touch with your local tech advisor and let them know you want them to keep you informed about the technologies you should know about that could help your growing business.
- Take advantage of free and/or low-cost technology seminars offered by your local chamber of commerce, the SBA or other business organizations.
Inability to Prioritize
Maybe you know about the latest and greatest technologies already and have a super consultant to guide you. Since you most likely have a limited amount of time and money to implement the technology you need, it's important to have a technology plan in place to prioritize what technology you decide to implement and when.
Let's say, for instance, that your company's sales force is growing and you need to consider implementing a wireless e-mail system. Then your marketing manager tells you that you have to expand your marketing department and need to consider adding WiFi in your office to accommodate the new employees. About this time, you also realize that more and more sales are happening outside your local region and you should expand your website to include better customer service and sales features.
In this kind of scenario, it's vital to work within a technology plan (just like your business plan) and consider what your goals are for the near, mid-term and long-range future. Using a technology plan will help you wisely invest in the right technology for your business at the right time. Without a technology plan, you'll always feel like you're running after the "technology train" instead of managing it.
When you first started out, it's likely that you began using Microsoft Excel to store critical facts and figures. As your business grew, you might have then begun using a PDA and Microsoft Outlook to store customer information. A number of your employees now use ACT! to manage customers while your marketing manager uses a hosted application. Congratulations! You've now graduated to multiple silos of data, not one of which is connected or integrated.
As your business grows, it's absolutely essential that you ensure your business's data is integrated as much as possible. Your inventory, sales data and marketing information need to be linked to together to best serve your customers and increase your profitability.
When inventory levels are low, you don't want to promise a customer you can get them something you really can't deliver. If a very important customer regularly buys from you, you should know about it and be able up-sell them on another product to compliment their purchase.
Integrating your company's information is critical to growing your business, and you need to find a way to do that. Whether you figure it out yourself or hire an IT person to help out, don't neglect this critical part of your technology plan.
Data Protection & Security
Another critical challenge to your business is how to protect your data from any number of internal and external threats. Hackers want to steal it. Floods, fire, earthquakes and storms can destroy it. Disgruntled employees want to erase it (after selling it to your competition). You might accidentally delete it.
In order to ensure your data is as protected as possibly, you must do three things: 1) protect it from hackers and others who shouldn't have access to it; 2) install a well-thought-out backup plan to ensure your data is backed up should it get lost; and 3) ensure you can recover your data in a timely fashion.
In this article, I won't go into the details of data security, but these two articles offer suggestions on how to handle it:
Ramon Ray is Entrepreneur.com's "Tech Basics" columnist and editor of Smallbiztechnology.com. He's the author ofTechnology Solutions for Growing Businesses and currently serves on the board of directors and the technology committee for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.