You might think new technologies are out of your reach – too complicated, too expensive, and too hard to implement. But many small businesses have jumped on the digital technology bandwagon, and they’re reaping the rewards.
“There’s possibly a perception that the tech is complex,” says Callaghan Innovation’s Jonathan Miller. “Our view is that at least some of these technologies are pretty easy to implement, and the investment in them can pay off pretty quickly. I think people need to get comfortable with what technologies are available and what they can do.”
Choosing which technologies to use depends on your strategy. It’s worth thinking about where your business is heading and what you want technology to help with, eg plans to hire a sales person in Australia and the need to collaborate remotely, or to increase online sales next year.
Considering the cost and benefit is important too. There are two main costs: the sticker cost or a subscription dollar amount, and the admin cost – the cost of training and implementation. The benefits can be measured in different ways too, eg achieving a goal, saving time or money, or increasing revenue or profit.
Not-for-profit organisation Digital Journey has been helping businesses create digital plans for the last three years, giving them a great insight into which technologies offer the biggest gains for their businesses.
“By looking back at the Digital Plans that have been created we have an insight into what the digital priorities are for businesses and what changes are being made,” says Digital Journey’s Stuart Dillon-Roberts. “We also get to hear about the digital tools that businesses are using and how they can increase productivity and customer engagement.”
Here’s what they’ve found.
Cloud-based storage allows data to be stored on computers or servers located all around the world, and accessed through the internet. Increasingly businesses are turning to cloud-based solutions to reduce costs and allow staff remote access to IT services from wherever they are. Over the last 18 months there has been an increase in businesses using cloud-based storage, like OneDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox, which offer a location for sharing information that all employees can access in a safe and secure way. Documents stored online can also be accessed from your smartphone or tablet when you’re on the move.
Good for: working with remote teams, gig workers (short-term workers), documenting processes, accessing information on desktop and mobile, sharing information with remote advisors or partners.
Online document products can enable a business to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations online. These often use cloud-based storage allowing team members to work on documents at the same time. For example, many businesses use Office 365 for online versions of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote. It’s a pay-per-user system, which makes it easier for a business to keep tabs on costs. Google has similar online tools, like Google Docs and Sheets, which allow live editing by multiple users.
Good for: Remote collaboration, real time collaboration, opening and generating documents on mobile, creating templates for processes.
When it comes to coordinating and planning projects, a shared calendar can only take you so far. For keeping up-to-date task lists on who is doing what, online tools like Trello and OneNote can be useful. Trello allows you to create, sort and prioritise activities (or as Trello calls them, Boards) that you and your team can access and update as needed. With OneNote you can record actions at meetings, take notes when meeting a customer and prepare checklists that are automatically updated to all your devices, and safely stored online.
Good for: Working to deadlines, working with contractors or other businesses, reducing update meetings and emails, updating others while mobile.
An add-on or plug-in adds extra features or functions to existing software.
Over the last two years, there’s been a spike in businesses moving to cloud-based financial and payroll services like Xero and MYOB. It’s worth checking out what other solutions are available that connect to the software you currently use, and add extra functionality that may help your business even more. There may be options for inventory management and keeping track of costs, recording the time your staff work on a job and automatically adding that to an invoice, and recording your receipts electronically making it easier to manage expenses.
“You should check out online services like Flow, which automates tasks by integrating your favourite apps, and IFTTT, which gets your apps and devices working together, for time-saving ways to make IT work smarter for your business,” says Dillon-Roberts.
Good for: integrating multiple apps, automating processes, integrating different areas of your business eg accounting and inventory.
These days, AI is part of everyday life. This technology makes it possible for machines to perform human-like tasks, learn from experience, and adjust to new information – it may be helping you buy things at the supermarket, find things online, and predicting what you might want to watch on your TV or device. You might already be using it for your business – if you use Xero’s accounting software, for example, their AI recommends account codes for your receipts based on the categories you’ve used before.
So is AI technology something you could use more in your own business?
“With some AI technologies, you need a larger-scale business to justify the cost of investing,” says Jonathan Miller from Callaghan Innovation.
”But small businesses can, relatively easily and cheaply, access some AI offerings by using plug-ins or add-ons to existing software platforms.
For example, if your business is or has an online store, you could consider adding recommender software, which uses artificial intelligence to recommend other products to a customer based on what they’ve bought before.
“Small companies should be evaluating these frequently and looking to incorporate these tools to automate manual and repetitive tasks,” he says. “You don’t need to develop the tech yourself. Let the big companies develop the AI and then be fast adopters.”
Good for: Working with large data sets, identifying customer behaviour and patterns, forecasting trends, tailoring customer interactions.
Ensure your business is ‘digitally inclusive’, meaning the people in your business have access to the internet, and to training for their digital skills.