n 15 years of Management and Technical Consulting, I can tell you unequivocally that Technology does not solve problems. If you find this statement odd, coming from someone that runs a technology company, this will clarify. Technology is intended and designed to support well understood and optimized processes run by well-trained people to provide repeatability, reliability, and efficiency for your business; the real things that translate into financial benefits and contribute to positive customer experiences. Using technology with poor processes only result in your people making errors faster which your customers ultimately have to deal with.
In today’s dynamic business environment, technology is an unavoidable necessity. In medium-to-large sized businesses, where the final solution wasn’t limited to just adding staff, it’s quite common to see ongoing efforts to acquire technology to solve a real or perceived problem. This approach over time, commonly results in companies with multiple software packages, at different times intended to solve the same problem, running on multiple hardware environments that aren’t really designed to work together. Operationally, small silos within the organization use workarounds and undocumented processes with the software to do their jobs. And the cycle repeats; employees complain about the difficulties using their tools and a new acquisition is made to solve the problem only to discover it doesn’t fit how the organization operates. In the short term, the technology actually reduces efficiency; in the long term, you become a “hostage” to your tech to the benefit of the company that sold you the “solution”.
This is no different for a small business. The effect, however, can be more crippling because it’s often not possible to patch an ongoing problem or hide an acquisition mistake with more effort or manpower. Problems and mistakes can cascade and fester, effect the revenue stream, and make technology solutions even more unreachable.
What’s the best advice for a small business? Before you open your doors, establish your processes and let that drive your technology decisions. However, if you find yourself trying to implement technology after your business has launched, the same best practices apply during the decision making process.
Technology Decision Making Process – Best Practices:
Understand How Your Business Operates
I use a simple, common sense mnemonic, People and Process – Then Technology. This means really think about “HOW” your business works and “WHO” makes it work, rather than what “WHAT” your business does. This mindset ensures the technology supports your employees (WHO does it) and their business process (HOW they do it). This is the difference between buying technology to solve a problem and technology to support a well understood and optimized processes that the people use. Even in large businesses, it’s common to see a technology acquisition being “force fit” into the organization. People are forced to do things they wouldn’t normally do or process are adjusted to accommodate the tech.
Understand Your “Pain” Points
Establish your baseline and manage the exceptions. All business have day to day operational issues. It’s critical for small business owners to really understand where “Pain” needs relief. If an issue occurs once or twice a year, but is very painful when it occurs, the small business owner still needs to recognize the frequency of occurrence doesn’t justify a technology solution; these are best addressed by a process based solution. In the context of this discussion, “pain” that requires relief is, for instance, an issue around the speed or efficiency of “HOW” you do something preventing further revenue growth.
Understand the True Cost of Technology
In the context of these decisions, it’s the hardware necessary to utilize that software and the services necessary to support the system and the amount of time you and your people invest in its implementation. This understanding helps the business determine the TRUE cost of the technology and is key to establishing balanced selection criteria. If your business started with a particular kind of tablet computer but the best support software is not available for your kind of device, is the benefit of the software enough to the offset new hardware requirements? If you know your process analysis is sound, the answer should be “yes”. But if the answer does happen to be “no”, it’s likely you don’t really have a handle on either the process or the problem you’re trying to solve.
Evaluate and Select
This best practice assumes the small business owner was able to establish their baselines, optimize their process, and understands the exceptions to manage outside of a technology solution. Based on that assumption, the small business owner will have a clear set of evaluation criteria, particularly cost versus value. Along with this, I urge this point of caution; technology is often marketed and purchased based on “WHAT” a business does. When you buy business-specific technology, you are essentially adopting how the technology company thinks your business should operate. Also, I often encounter established small businesses using free versions of email and other software. While they’re free they do follow the old adage, “you get what you pay for” and there is a long-term impact when you make this kind of choice. These options often don’t work well with later technology acquisitions. Even after you start paying for the previously free tool, most quickly realize the software is a “stand alone” design, not well suited to work in a business system, and still needs to be replaced. Other things we didn’t think about at the time, like changing email addresses and domain names, can have significant impacts to your brand identity and printed marketing materials.
Find A Trusted Partner
This is different from asking your neighbor’s kid to build your website or getting advice from your best friend that works for Google. Non-Technical businesses should consider engaging a trusted technology partner to assist with technology selection and acquisition. The wide range of hardware specifications and operating systems and the limits those impose on software solutions along with limitations in scalability and supportability with the available software may require more expertise than the owner may have. If you are a technical business, it’s important you make decisions agnostically. Most often this means overcoming personal preferences to pick the technology that provides the best balance between supporting your people and processes, cost, and scalability.
At this point, this technology discussion doesn’t seem to have much to do with technology. This is very intentional. We want to ensure we highlight what leads small business down the technology rabbit hole. Picking the wrong technology is a moot point if a small business owner didn’t truly understand what leads to the poor decision. Technology decisions are less risky if you understand the details of HOW your business operates and WHO operates it. This understanding leads to the “WHY” questions; which are the first step to optimizing your business processes. Armed with this knowledge, any small business will be able to pick the correct technology to support their People and Processes.