Commentary - When it comes to using technology to improve their profits, the first place small businesses should look to is the success of social networks. This is not a recommendation to set up a Facebook page or Twitter feed, although those actions can be valuable, instead, it’s a recommendation to take cues from how social networks operate.
Social networks amplify basic human behaviors rather than asking people to substantively change behaviors. Take Facebook. You use it to talk with friends, see what friends are doing, and share with friends what you are doing. The underlying human behaviors are not changed. They are amplified by the network’s scale.
However, when it comes to small business technology, IT decision makers – and vendors – often ask people to change their behavior. Employees are asked to conform to new processes, re-learning how to work. Classic examples include complex CRM or document management systems that introduce multiple layers to existing ways of communicating. The required behavior change is a big reason why so few small businesses successfully adopt enterprise IT beyond email and a website.
Small businesses tend to be flat organizations, with little hierarchy after the owner/entrepreneur, and often include a distributed staff – remote, part time, and highly mobile workers. In this environment, behavior change is typically perceived as a roadblock to moving quickly. In short, small businesses lack a formal structure that fosters/demands behavior change. Instead, small businesses should look at how technology works with their own, and their peoples’ behaviors. They’ll get better results faster.
1) Start with a business goal, not a technology product: Perhaps your employees are all working on the same documents, tripping over each other to maintain version control via email. You may not require a complex document management system. You may only need to make it easier for the team to help each other, so that documents get to customers on time and effectively. If that is the case, one of the simple tools on the market to centrally revise and comment on documents while maintaining version control may suit your organization just fine, rather than trying to use technology with more functionality than is necessary.
It’s also helpful to leverage the processes you already have in place. Consider how a growing company answers and routes calls from its main number. If the goal is a professional appearance, a receptionist or expensive phone system may not be necessary to implement and educate the team on. A VoIP service that offers a recorded greeting and routes incoming calls to people’s existing desk and mobile phones may suffice.
2) Bring together the communications tools people already use in one familiar place. Phone, IM and email are here to stay because they amplify basic human ways of connecting – such as sharing thoughts in a more logical fashion (email, the contemporary letter), quick bursts of communication like “I’m running late” (IM and texts), and phone (hearing tone and emotion). Combining two or more of these tools into one simple place that employees are already familiar with – say Microsoft Outlook – is now possible and requires only a computer and Internet connection, if you choose the right service provider. Your staff no longer has to check voicemail – they’re forwarded to the email inbox – or hunt for colleagues’ contact information. Instead, your staff can view whether colleagues are free or busy and click to call, IM, or email them from Outlook. Analysts estimate this can save up to about an hour of time per employee each day. The key point is that “unifying communications” does not disrupt existing behaviors. Rather, it better organizes the behaviors already occurring. One of my favorite case studies on how this benefits a company involves a top online wine distributor. The customer service team can start checking customer information based on the caller ID as soon as the call comes in. When the service team leaves their desk to check inventory, they never miss a call because it’s routed to their mobile. This keeps staff lean and improves customer service – and it did not require training.
3) Work where and how people work, not just at the office: Successful social networks have made themselves easy to engage with via both mobile devices and PCs, in most cases regardless of these tools’ operating platform. Businesses should keep the same in mind as more and more of their workers spend less and less time working from behind their desks. Consider that in Q4 2010, smartphone and tablet shipments beat shipments of notebooks and PCs for the first time1. The gap is only expected to widen. Forrester says that 43 percent of SMBs identify supporting more mobile devices or smartphones as a key telecom initiative. Of course, not all mobile devices resonate the same with an individual. Some employees gravitate to iPhones while others stick with BlackBerry and its beloved keyboard. Many are increasingly interested in Androids as well as in connecting their personal tablets to work email. Allowing people to use the phones that securely work best for them – rather that limiting choice – is a good first step for keeping employees highly productive from any location or device. The right outsourced or cloud email provider should enable this securely for you, removing any hassles and high costs for internal IT.
One point underlying each of these recommendations is the critical nature of cloud or “software as a service” options to small businesses. These options do not require buying servers or managing software. They are delivered over the Internet, erasing much of the implementation and cost hurdles that come with adopting new technologies. This allows small business to further focus on the user’ behavior and the business’ goal.
The fact is small businesses operate differently than large businesses. It’s often this difference that provides small businesses a strategic advantage over larger, well-funded competitors. However, too often when it comes to technology adoption, service providers, IT staff or the CEO require small business employees to change their behavior – often to mirror what large businesses have instituted with complex and costly process and technology re-engineering. To improve their business with technology, small businesses can learn from what’s made social networks so widely accepted.
Serguei Sofinski is the CEO of Intermedia.