It's no secret that today's business environment creates both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, powerful technology, including the internet, provides access to global markets and increases your potential for bottom-line gains. On the other hand, managing the technology and taking advantage of the opportunities it provides can prove daunting--particularly for small-business owners who lack an extensive budget and a dedicated IT department.
Make no mistake: Achieving success in this technology-dominant era is far more complicated than putting a personal computer and a printer on a desk and reaping the rewards. Increasingly, entrepreneurs must understand how to take advantage of an IT infrastructure, including a robust network, to compete more effectively. Ultimately, it's as much about vision--and developing a viable strategy--as it is about actual computing.
Navigating this business environment requires a solid business plan and an understanding of your company's primary objectives. The technology needs of a metal fabrication company, for instance, are far different from those of a graphic design firm--although both require PCs and can benefit from networks to manage data. The former might require systems that store customer information and manage a parts database, while the latter might need software that lets designers collaborate and share files with clients.
Too often, companies jump from one system or application to another but never realize the full benefit of their technology. Without a defined strategy, they make poor buying decisions, adopt ineffective tools, and often experience a high level of frustration. Businesses that excel typically establish technology strategies that help them gain a competitive advantage through cost savings, process improvements, faster time to market, and improved quality and service levels. These firms often exceed the expectations of customers, business partners and employees.
Evolving from a reactive approach to proactive one doesn't just happen. When developing a sound tech strategy, it's important to ask the right questions:
- Can my business achieve an immediate gain from the technology?
- What benefits are possible and how long will it take us to achieve success?
- What resources are required to implement and manage the technology?
- Does the hardware or application support a foundation for future growth?
Not surprisingly, adopting the right systems can maximize your results and simplify future technology deployments. For example, a robust internet protocol (IP) network makes it easier to implement new technologies, such as VoIP. With a solid foundation in place, a company can utilize VoIP to help trim calling costs and provide sophisticated phone-based capabilities such as unified messaging, which allows employees to receive e-mail, voice mail and faxes in a single inbox. And the platform enables web-based document sharing, collaboration and the use of video over a network. In addition, a well-designed IP infrastructure streamlines security while improving protection.
In a data-intensive world, mapping out the right combination of tools is essential. Yet it's also paramount to ensure that systems live up to their full potential. The fallout from bad technology and failed installations haunts more than a few businesses. In many cases, transforming the vision into reality requires outside expertise--particularly at companies without IT experts. Working with analysts, consultants, value-added resellers, service providers, technology partners and even a knowledgeable friend or relative can pay huge dividends.
Finally, it's wise to monitor the value that a system or application provides and understand its benefits. As many companies have learned--sometimes painfully--the initial cost of technology is only the starting point. Without solid metrics and benchmarks, it's difficult to know what benefits you're achieving and whether the new systems are providing value.
In many cases, business owners are wise to use return on investment (ROI) as a key indicator. Still, ROI doesn't tell the entire story. It's difficult to measure the direct value of an application that improves customer service or employee morale, for example. And in a tough economic climate or adverse industry conditions, the software might not boost sales but it could help you retain customers or employees and cement loyalty. That, in turn, could cut costs and position your company for future success. But measuring these soft-dollar gains is possible through the use of surveys and structured feedback.
If you can put all the pieces of the technology puzzle together, you could transform your goals into clearly defined short-term and long-term business needs. And having a well-thought-out tech plan in place allows you to move away from the "faster is better" approach and adopt a strategy that boosts performance and profits through the maximum utilization of your resources. These days, developing a solid technology plan isn't just a good idea--it's the basis for competition.
Peter Alexander is vice president of worldwide commercial marketing at Cisco Systems Inc., the leading supplier of networking equipment and network management for the internet.