Thursday, 07 March 2019
Investing in the right technology can make all the difference to the efficiency of your business. Some experts share their experiences of overcoming any IT challenges.
Having the right software and technology in place is fundamental to the growth of any small business. It can help you better organise your key business functions, find new customers and markets, as well as innovate competitively. But finding what works best for you can be problematic.
Hertfordshire-based SEO firm Reboot Online Marketing was founded in 2012 and works with clients such as Vapourlites to boost website traffic. While the 15-strong team is IT literate, the group has faced a big challenge as it tries to scale up its own technological offering to cope with growth. “The major tech challenge we’ve faced by far is managing and fine-tuning our workflow,” says MD Shai Aharony. “We’ve tried several off-the-shelf software solutions but none of these have the fidelity and flexibility that we require.”
The solution: “Disparate information and systems means you lose the ability to make vital real-time decisions,” says Dean Gardner, director of strategic projects at business consultancy Cooper Software. “You have a separate system for customer relationships and another one for accounting or billing. You laboriously put information manually into an Excel spreadsheet and this can lead to mistakes if you put a digit in the wrong place.”
He suggests small firms look at software such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), which integrates core business processes including planning, sales and marketing. “It helps integrate your workflows to improve efficiencies,” Gardner says.
Stephen Jones, territory manager of UK and EMEA at inventory management solutions provider Unleashed Software, says: “You could go out and buy ERP, but it can often be out of budget for a small firm. A less expensive option is to buy apps that work on a function-by-function basis.”
He explains that this includes apps that help purchasing managers identify when to buy new stock or for sales managers to track the progress of ongoing deals. “Rather than buying the whole house and getting a big ERP system you can build the windows piece by piece and department by department,” he says. “Automated software can cut the number of human hours needed to perform tasks and you get better real-time reporting.”
Other options for businesses looking to integrate key business processes and information is to check out performance management systems such as Teamwork.com, which can track the performance of your employees on a project. Time management can also be boosted through time-tracking devices such as Toggl or even the use of virtual assistants to help with administration.
“Online security is another big challenge for us,” says Aharony. “Especially with employees finishing up tasks at home.”
According to a 2017 Ponemon survey, 41% of cyber breaches in SMEs were due to employee error. That can be through use of work devices, poor password protection, clicking on phishing emails and weak bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies that introduce viruses into an organisation’s network.
The solution: Enhancing employee training to ensure that staff recognise threats and understand the patterns of cyber attacks will help. Also introduce security measures such as firewalls, two-factor authentication, controlling access to vital equipment or data and deep-packet inspection software to monitor your network and highlight suspicious activity.
“IT manufacturers are certainly improving the ease of use of their products but having that inherent skills and knowledge base within your business is still important”
Employees must also be aware of who to contact in the event of an attack and how to restore operations by using backup data and systems.
“If you’re a small firm on a tight budget you need to firstly carry out a business impact assessment,” says Chris Hodson, senior director of information security for EMEA CISCO at security group Zscaler. “What data do you have, what’s the most important to you and who has access to it? What are the potential threats, vulnerabilities and who is likely to attack you? This is a low-cost exercise but will set your security policy off in the right direction.”
Hodson advises small businesses to use other free information or advice, too. “You can find a host of security policies and standards, such as the National Cyber Security Centre’s Cyber Essentials programme,” he says. “Then you can turn to technical solutions such as firewalls, encryption and multifactored authentication to access your systems. If you have a tight budget, don’t be swayed by vendors trying to sell you multilayered threat detectors for your whole system. Don’t spread yourself too thin; try and protect the information most important to you. So that’s increasing security on your payments information – not the file outlining the new canteen menu.”
One constant challenge for Gary Clark, chief technical officer at Fife-based technology consultant Cooper Software, is trying to achieve unified communications across the group. “As we’ve grown we have started using Skype and Instant Messenger but the telecoms and broadband infrastructure that we have struggles to cope at times,” he says. “You find when you’re on a conference call or downloading information that you’re faced with an interruption that wastes valuable time. It’s very much limited by which provider you’re with and it’s still something we have issues with even after upgrading at significant cost.”
The solution: Businesses facing telecoms challenges could look at a unified communications as a service (UCaaS) model. Based in the cloud, it can integrate applications such as voice, IT and video across handsets and mobiles. It appeals to businesses with large numbers of remote and mobile workers and can lessen the security risk of BYOD devices or employees logging into personal Skype or Facebook accounts.
Jones says small businesses face a raft of other key IT and technological challenges. Website development, for example, can be a minefield for small businesses.
“You need to focus on connection and integration,” he says. “One firm I know recently built a shiny new website on a proprietary platform, but it wasn’t connected to its CRM, invoicing or sales systems. Information had to be put in manually, hitting productivity and the value of the new site. Another business had a more automated scheme where a couple of clicks would result in an easy flow of information to other systems.”
A lack of IT skills and a failure to keep track of trends is another negative for small firms. “IT manufacturers are certainly improving the jargon and ease of use around their products but having that inherent skills and knowledge base within your business is still important,” he says. “Often I see management get the junior trainee to lead the search for new kit just because they’re in their teenage years or early 20s. Directors need to take a more central role in researching new products.”
Keeping faith in legacy equipment and not being aware of the need to replace outdated software are other issues noted by Clark. “Small firms can be resistant around change or they put in place a piece of software, say ERP, and think that all their problems are fixed,” he says. “There needs to be long-term thinking about their IT strategy.”