Technology plays a crucial role in most businesses; particularly the service businesses which make up the bulk of the UK’s economic activity. Since the birth of software, however, there have been small gaps which hold users back. Like the deep crevasses which are the bane of an arctic explorer’s life, these gaps are thin, you can see the other side, but they can be enormously frustrating. These problems come under the broad category which IT specialists call “integration”.
The state of play: integration 2012
Some of these problems have already been solved. Thanks to the integration of the programs in Microsoft Office, for example, it’s no trouble at all to pop a spreadsheet from Excel into a Word document. A myriad graphics, sound and video formats are practically interchangeable. Windows itself, as an operating system, does a pretty good job of ensuring that hundreds of thousands of pieces of software from manufacturers who have never even spoken to one another will all work together without everything falling over. Today there’s also Windows Intune, which proactively yet discreetly maintains and optimises all your Windows 7 computers from the cloud.
Far from being a challenge exclusively for large companies, smaller businesses have most to lose when it comes to data integration. Large businesses have the support of an IT department, and can throw long-term money at integration projects. They have people whose sole job is to dig crucial data out of complicated systems and present it in comprehensible terms which aid business decision-making. In a small business with all hands on deck, you need IT which works and information which is readily available without complication or expense.
Effective integration means that:
Your sales database can feed marketing activities and then provision of service. Microsoft CRM Online, for example, works seamlessly with Office 365. Office 365, meanwhile includes delivery tools for everything from email and improved collaboration to unified sales and support.
- Your finance team (or you with your finance hat on) can check sales and send invoices without retyping or errors
- Less technically-minded users can get the data they need without learning new systems or endless different searches and interrogations
- You can run minimum IT (both in terms of hardware boxes and expense) for maximum results
- You can gain a holistic view of the business with all the information you need – and only the information you need – and just when you need it
Why isn’t everybody doing it?
So, why isn’t everyone thinking about integration? The main problem is that we still tend to think about both computer hardware and software in discrete chunks. We buy piecemeal, in order to solve a specific problem: an accountancy package for tax and payroll; a CRM package for clients, etc. We never bother to think about how these tools might work – or not work – together. This results in each aspect of the business becoming compartmentalised. Different functions develop at different speeds and in different directions, ultimately increasing the chances of each element not working in sync with others.
An altogether more effective approach is to start by panning out to the big picture of the business. It’s a hard thing to do for a small firm more used to fire-fighting day-to-day challenges, but in the long run it’s a worthwhile investment in time and resources. Ask yourself: what is the customer journey from start to finish? It may begin with acquiring leads (from marketing and a website to handling incoming enquiries). There will be prospecting and qualifying. Then, service delivery; whether that’s specifying a job; finalising quotes, managing labour or handling the supply chain. There’s the financial side too; from managing cash-flow and credit to ensuring purchase orders, invoices and chasing payment all happens in a timely fashion. By taking this top-down view, you will have a much better idea of your technology needs, and a firmer grasp of which systems need to work seamlessly together to keep the business on track.
Making integration work
There are two pressure points which should be uppermost in your mind when making these technology decisions. The first is the integration of online and offline services. Microsoft tools have been designed over the past five years from the ground up to allow online use, offline use and anything in between. Office Web Apps (part of Office 365), for example, give you a full-fidelity Word, Excel and PowerPoint experience through a browser. Microsoft CRM Online, meanwhile, is 100% compatible with Dynamics CRM held on a server in your office. If you choose to move back offline, or a mixture of the two, it’s not a problem. You should never feel that you’re running two parallel, complicated or separate systems.
Then there’s the required administration of your systems. There’s no point having a clear holistic assessment of your technology needs if stringing together the right set of equipment is going to demand an astrophysics degree. Again, new tools are rapidly becoming available, which will help to integrate IT admin and make it more user-friendly for those without an IT department to call on. Typical of these is the Office 365 Intregration Module which integrates the admin of Office 365 into the same Dashboard as Small Business Server 2011 – the standard workhorse server for Microsoft businesses used by hundreds of thousands of businesses worldwide. In this way, managing Office 365 becomes as familiar, simple and structured as managing an existing in-house infrastructure.
There are plenty more integration tools and services (try looking up “Microsoft Connectors” for a start) which will allow systems to work together, talk to each other, reduce admin complexity or otherwise connect and simplify. With a holistic view of your business and the right tools for the job, you will avoid the small mistakes today which turn into major challenges tomorrow and save money well into the future.