Your technology tent pole

By James E. Gaskin, Network World |  Small Business, customer service

One of my favorite questions for analysts and consultants is what small businesses should learn from big businesses. Let me quote Michael Dortch, long time IT analyst now with the Aberdeen Group, from an interview I did with him last spring: "If you are not entirely dependent on IT to do business and succeed competitively now, you will be by the time I'm finished speaking."

When I speak to small business groups and tell them that quote, a few strenuously object. Comments tend to run along the lines of, "I run a flower shop, not a computer company. That doesn't apply to me."

This knee jerk reaction comes for two reasons. First, business owners love to do what they do, like raise and sell flowers, and often hate the paperwork that ties them to their computer. Second, some people believe "technology" really means "new stuff they can't afford" and forget they run their businesses with personal computers, cell phones, Web sites, e-mail, online purchasing, and accounting software.

What you have becomes old hat, and what you don't have looks scary. Soon, a fear of new, expensive technology gets applied to all technology not already in-house.

I'm guilty of this fear as well, which is why I say "Technology Is Broken" when I speak, while everyone nods in agreement. But although parts of technology are broken here and there, technology has become the tent pole holding up every business today. Unfortunately, sometimes we spend so much time struggling to keep the tent pole working properly we forget to enjoy the tent.

How pervasive is that technology tent pole holding up your business? Try going a full day without using anything with an on-off switch and a display, and see how much work you get done.

At one conference, I spoke to an IT guy working for a wholesale flower grower and distributor. Quite efficiently, his company supports 50 PC users with one Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003. Quite wastefully, one IT person spends half of every work day babying an Exchange Server, managing the spam it receives, and keeping it running rather than letting it crash yet again. Half the work day is too much time spent patching your tent pole, but patch you must.

Dortch follows up his IT dependency train of thought by boiling work in a modern U.S. company down to information and processes. Information, such as customer details, what you sell, and where you get products to sell, is the first part. Processes include selling, installing products, and servicing your customers. Every action of every employee can be separated using some type of information or performing some type of process. Of course, the processes need not be high tech, even if the information management is.

Believe it or not, there are several different franchised companies that will come and scoop the dog poop from your yard for a monthly fee. That process is certainly low tech, but marketing and finding customers, then scheduling travel routes for the scoopers, reeks of information technology (among other olfactory assaults).

Feel free to curse technology, and even kick it once in a while. But after you take a good look at what you and everyone else in your business uses throughout the workday, you'll realize you can't eliminate technology. Admit you can't live without it, get the duct tape, and keep your technology tent pole as straight and strong as possible.

Large companies often forget how to be your partner in such a situation. Right now I'm particularly aggravated with Verizon's local phone service division because either their laziness or incompetence is causing my in-laws considerable grief.

How's this for ignored information and bungled processes: when my in-laws house burned down, Verizon wouldn't forward the phone number from the burned house to their temporary apartment unless they made the request from a phone in the original home. Yes, the burned home, using a melted phone. Now they can't get Verizon to hook up the phone line to their rebuilt home, because they weren't able to forward the phone in the first place or some other crazy rule in place at Verizon. Either that's the worst defined process in the world, or information on customer service fell into a black hole named Verizon.

There's another thing small businesses should learn from the bad examples of big businesses like Verizon: fire incompetents that run off your customers. Then fit the processes and information handling that enabled employees to be incompetent.

Yes, technology is broken, but you have to keep your tent pole as straight as possible to support your business anyway. But as we see with our example of Verizon's incompetence, broken technology is not always your fault.

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