As part of our series on how small and medium-sized firms use technology - which will run throughout March - we ask experts for their views.
Ramon Ray is a journalist and editor of Smallbiztechnology.com. Describing himself as a "technology evangelist", he is also the author of two books on technology for small and growing businesses.
Technology is one of the most important aspects of business that make businesses well-oiled and optimally-productive machines.
Technology is often what separates those businesses that are able to respond quickly, act pre-emptively, thoroughly please customers and enable optimal communication and collaboration within and without the organisation, from those who are not able to do these things.
Over the years, I've observed that while many companies strive to use technology as best they can, some do it better than others. There are three fundamental hurdles that companies are not clearing in their overall use of optimising technology.
What's lacking from business technology is:
- Training (education)
- Measuring technology ROI (return on investment)
- Continued innovation
While many small businesses are inundated with offers to implement social media campaigns, buy new mobile gadgets or do more with cloud computing, once purchased there is little, if any, follow up to ensure a maximum return on investment is leveraged from these technology investments.
Here's why training, measurement and continued innovation are so important.
I'm the "technology evangelist" and know quite a bit about technology.
Prior to being a technology evangelist, I ran my own tech consulting company, so I know more than the average person about technology.
However, even with all my technology expertise I still get frustrated from time to time - there are things I simply can't figure out or don't know how to do.
Business professionals are in a similar predicament, on a day-to-day basis, with the technology they use.
Imagine the busy sales professional who has just been issued her new tablet and related software and mobile accessories.
Without training, this new, but really cool, package of technology can be frustrating, leading to lost productivity and frustration.
Her day is spent in frustration, her customers are not being serviced as they should be, and she might resort to using technology not sanctioned by the company.
Training is important to ensure that as businesses invest in technology, their employees are able to use the technology to its and their full potential.
Remember those times when you're in line at the grocery store and the clerk on cashier duty is new?
That's what your customers, colleagues and outside partners feel like when your employees are not properly trained in using technology.
Another aspect of training is not just knowing how to use the technology, but to master the technology and find the hidden gems and higher level productivity tools to move from "functionally literate", to knowing the technology so well it's a natural extension of your day-to-day productivity.
Once technology is implemented, it is critical to measure the use of the technology to ensure it's delivering on the ROI (return on investment) that you hoped to get out of it, and to see what further gains you might realise that you didn't expect.
Of course measuring ROI might not always be a positive experience, but you might also realise that the implementation of technology is not delivering the results you expected.
Have clear goals and benchmarks of success - know what a successful technology implementation is for your company.
If you are using virtualisation and consolidating servers from 10 to 3, know what to expect from this change.
Maybe you are moving from software to software as a service (Saas) - do you know the key benefits this move will make for your business?
It's also important to know the status quo - to know how things are 'today'.
For example, maybe your sales team is complaining that they are not able to quickly complete sales in the field, as they must come into the office to complete a sale.
In response to this need, you work with your local IT consultant to implement mobile technology so your sales team can complete sales in the field.
If you see a boost in sales due to your sales team completing sales in the field - you'll know the mobile implementation (or at least one aspect of it) worked.
If they are not able to close sales in the field - you'll know the implementation failed to meet expected results and you can then consider what changes need to be made to get the desired result.
When implementing technology don't stop at buying technology - measure it to ensure it's delivering on what you wanted it to do.
Keep in mind that technology is dumb - it's the human experts who implement the technology whose job it is to ensure it works properly. Before implementing technology, be very clear with your tech advisors on what your needs are.
The latest flavour of the month is the launch of the Apple iPad 3.
So many people asked me if I'm buying the iPad 3 - no I'm not.
The iPad 2 I have (and other tablets from BlackBerry and Samsung) are just fine and meet my needs. Some people might find they need the iPad 3, but I don't.
On the other hand, there is a new Dell XPS ultralight notebook that I'm looking forward to using, to replace my current notebook. Notebooks that are lighter, more powerful and have longer battery lives are always of interest to me.
You need to know what technology you need to upgrade and those that you don't need to upgrade.
It's important that you inventory your technology needs regularly to know what technology you need to upgrade and what is working just fine for you.
Continued innovation does not mean that you must upgrade technology, it means that you are periodically analysing your needs to determine if and when you should upgrade to new technology.
As part of this continued innovation, upgrading might not always entail upgrading the actual technology, it might mean using the same but having better business processes or work flow.
Often smart business managers find that their technology is not at fault, in as much as it's another aspect of their business that needs to change - such as better hiring, better communication, better targeted marketing etc.
Well there you have it.
Social media, mobile computing, security and cloud computing are all important technologies in your business.
But if you neglect training, innovation and measuring ROI you're wasting your time and money and not operating as optimally as you can.