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Creating a Technology Road Map

A new year brings new technologies to evolve your business--but you need a plan before you buy.

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It's 2006. Does your have a road map to address your and opportunities with new technologies?

If you answered 'no,' then you've come to the right place.

With the comes new and emerging technologies to consider for your business. For instance, in 2006 you might want to take advantage of wireless Protocol (IP) phones, unified messaging or videoconferencing. All three are now available for , and all three can improve operational efficiencies, employee productivity and provide substantial cost savings--crucial competitive advantages for any .

Before you invest in any , however, you need a plan--a road map that matches short-term and long-term business goals with specific technology solutions to help you meet those goals.

But small businesses often don't have a plan for technology acquisition. Instead, they traditionally add technology as a means of only addressing an immediate problem. That approach can set the stage for problems as companies evolve.

In other words, without a road map, you may be investing in the wrong technology for your business at the wrong time. In addition to wasting money, you may be creating more problems than the technology was intended to solve in the first place.

Here's how to create a technology road map for your business.

Step 1: Identify current and potential business challenges
Identifying what your most pressing obstacles are today--and what they'll likely be tomorrow--can help you accurately determine the best technology solutions for overcoming those challenges. Some common challenges small businesses face include:

  • improving operational efficiencies,
  • enhancing customer responsiveness,
  • containing costs of doing business, and
  • keeping data secure.

Step 2: Map the new technology solution to the biggest business challenge
For your 2006 (and beyond) technology plan, connect the dots between your biggest business challenge and the specific technology solution that addresses that challenge.

For example, if improving operational efficiency is your biggest challenge, consider investing in a secure computer network foundation. Such a flexible communications platform supports wireless networks, virtual private networks (VPNs), and other communications tools. A secure computer network foundation goes a long way toward improving your business's operational efficiencies by enabling employees to communicate more easily wherever they go.

Similarly, if reducing operating costs is your top priority, consider a converged network capable of carrying voice and video as well as data. You'll have only one network to manage, which reduces costs; you can take advantage of voice over internet protocol, a great way to cut telecommunications costs; and so on (read "Should Your Business Switch to VoIP?").

Step 3: Determine what phase your business is in

Is your business in its foundation, growth or optimization phase? Knowing the answer can help you determine the core technology investment and road map your business is likely to need.

In the foundation phase, a small business is seeking to get established. Communicating effectively--with employees, customers and suppliers--is especially critical. So your technology road map should take into account the need to provide the easiest possible access to information, offering the best service to customers, and keeping information secure.

Businesses in the growth phase are established and looking to be more efficient and cost-effective. Technology considerations might include offering workers the ability to work from home or on the go. You might also want to enhance your communications infrastructure to provide greater operational efficiencies and cost savings through IP telephony.

In the optimization phase, it's time to differentiate your business with customers and suppliers. To do so, implementing customer relationship management, sales-force automation and call-center applications to enhance information sharing may be your priority.

Step 4: Ensure that the immediate technology choice will help evolve your business over time
Whichever technologies you decide on, only invest in solutions that'll help your business achieve your goals today and also support--with minimal upgrades--the needs you'll have in the future as your business evolves.

Small-business buyers often go for the lowest-priced technology that meets their needs today. This generally means buying products that don't offer as many capabilities as others. But this approach can actually cost you money and time in the long run. For example, to save money, some small businesses purchase PCs with 512MB of memory or less. For about $200 more, they could have a PC with 1GB of memory or more. The more memory a PC has, the faster applications will run. And, by extension, the faster the PC's performance is, the less time you or an employee wastes. The goal is to get the best value over time, not the lowest upfront cost.

To get the best long-term technology investment for your business, make sure any vendor you're considering offers easy financing for its technology solutions. Many technology vendors now provide flexible financing and leasing options especially tailored for small- and medium-sized businesses.

In addition, take into account what's available in terms of service and support for any solution you're considering. Look for vendors that can provide system design and ongoing support for both minor and major software upgrades. In some cases, such services are available from a technology company's local resellers. Also, make sure your solution vendors can help train your staff so they can handle routine maintenance.

A Few More Tips Before You Buy
Now you're ready to make solid investments in 2006 that'll help your business be more agile, efficient and competitive. But before you spend your hard-earned money, I'll leave you with a few more tips.

  • Minimize the number of vendors. It might save you money to buy network routers from vendor A, firewalls from vendor B, and network storage from vendor C. But you'll have three vendors to deal with if something goes wrong. And guess what? Vendor A will invariably point a finger to vendor B as the culprit, and vice versa, leaving you caught--without a solution--in the middle. Spare yourself the agony and the time (and remember, time is money) by getting as much of your technology solutions from one vendor as possible.
  • Remember, you're not alone. Talk to trusted peers, partners, suppliers, friends--even competitors. Find out what technologies are working for them, and which ones aren't. Ask them about the specific benefits they've received. Find out if they experienced any unpleasant surprises, and if so, how they dealt with them.
  • Stay tuned. As for the new and emerging technologies mentioned earlier in this column, keep reading this column. In the coming months I'll explain 2006's hot new technologies and how they can help your small businesses thrive this year--and beyond.

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