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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…TO COMPUTERISE OR NOT?Published in Can you find it Business Edition on Tuesday, February 1st 2015
TO Computerise or not to computerise? If you’ll excuse the crude literary paraphrase, this really is the question according to the NWDA’s research. Their ICT survey showed that for around a quarter of businesses in the North West, it is not so much a matter of improving computing, but whether, where and how to implement it in the first place, writes Joel Teague, of Teagus.

Even if your business is already using computers, the chances are that you’re wondering whether some part of that business could be improved with a new system. That’s the trouble with this computing stuff – the expression ‘up to date’ is usually applicable for about as long as ‘the tide is in’.

The benefits of getting the right systems running in the right way are huge – 80% of public organizations in the NWDA survey that implemented systems reported a positive impact. Unfortunately, the process of identifying an opportunity, then selecting, implementing and running the right system to exploit it is not easy.

To many the whole task looks complicated, time consuming, stressful and expensive. Alas – it often is. However, the risks associated with not grasping the technological nettle are far worse. Ask yourself a simple question: if a company who has implemented the right systems moves in down the street, how long will you last?

At this point I have to make clear my opinion that this whole area is not something that should be taken on as just another entry in a director’s task list. It is simply too important, complicated, risky and time-consuming. So at the risk of sounding too self-important, my advice is: get some professional help.

That said, I acknowledge that this would be a very short and naive section if I were to assume everyone would take this approach.

From here in I’ll endeavour to provide some useful advice to those budding DIY computer experts out there. Over the next few issues I’ll give some pointers on how to identify the parts of a business that would benefit from computing (or better computing), how to choose or create the best solution, how to engage and manage suppliers, and how to get the best out of those systems until it’s time to do it all again. This month, I’ll concentrate on the first part – when and where to consider new systems, and how to work out whether it’s worth the time and expense.

The first thing to emphasise is that this whole process is about analysing your business, not about understanding technology. All you need to grasp about the tech stuff is what it can do, so you can work out whether your business would benefit from it.

There are many ways to approach business analysis, and my preferred approach revolves around objectives and processes. In a structured review I encourage the directors to review their business plan and overall objectives – after all, computing is just another means to get your business to where you want it to be.

With all this fresh in your mind, the next step is to map out the basic processes of your business. Then it is well worth spending some time with the people who carry out each part of each process, and finding out the real way in which they happen.

Look for telltale signs of tasks that could be done faster, cheaper or more effectively:

Paper-based storage of repetitive information – forms, card files and so on.

Repetitive decisions and actions carried out manually.

Typing or writing the same information more than once.

‘Home-made’ spreadsheets and databases used to track information on PCs where main systems don’t quite meet the requirement.

From these points you should be able to get a good impression of the processes that run smoothly as they are, and the areas where you may be able to significantly improve things.

You can then make a list of requirements of any system in terms of must-have capabilities, plus features that would improve things but aren’t essential.

Keep your list non-technical – for example, rather than specifying ‘web-based’ as a requirement, you would use something like ‘can be accessed from any PC with an internet connection’. That way you won’t restrict yourself to the technical approaches you already know about, and suppliers are free to meet the need in the best way available. Also, don’t forget to include your requirements of the supplier – a poor or inappropriate supplier can make the best system a disaster.

From here, there is the tricky task of finding out how different computer systems could improve things when implemented into your particular business. This is something I’ll expand on next month, but generally it comes down to a mixture of research, realistic predictions of how things could work, and cost/benefit analyses.

Unless your business is highly unusual, there will be other companies with similar (but rarely identical) computing requirements. The differences are what make the choice of software packages difficult. This is also why your map of processes is important.

In general, companies end up using a small part of what their packages can do, and rarely find a package that does all they need. It’s all about finding the best match, and in some cases, getting what you need created specifically for you – an option often overlooked or disregarded.

For research on potential solutions, I’d recommend the following:

Recommendations – if you have contacts in similar but non-competitive companies, pick their brains.

Industry publications and websites. Suppliers worth their salt will often advertise in these.

The Internet. Research on the Web can be difficult, time-consuming and misleading if you’re not familiar with the oddities of search engines and directories. If you’re not a webby person yourself, find one (they’re never far away), and give them clear instructions on the sort of thing you’re after.

Business networking meetings – many groups like your local Chambers of Commerce (0845 2260040) or Business Link (www.businesslinksussex.co.uk) will be able to point you at local suppliers. In London, the Digital Affinity Group is a particularly useful group, and the e-London website has a good directory of suppliers at www.eSussex.org/. In the North West we are blessed with a range of exceptional talent when it comes to ICT suppliers.

You’ll find that your list of requirements (especially the ‘nice-to-haves’) extends significantly during this process, as you come across new ideas and possibilities from various products. Be careful to go back and objectively evaluate their benefits to your business – don’t get tempted by attributes that are clever (or worse – ‘cool’) but which won’t improve your bottom line.

A good supplier ought to be able to help you map their offering on to your particular processes. If they seem to think your requirement is the same as everyone else’s, look elsewhere.

Make sure they take into account the exceptions to your processing rules – those niggling bits on your processes that require extra tasks. Automating a process that’s only used 1% of the time often costs the same as automating the process that’s the norm – so make sure you spot them and include them in your calculations.

You should now be able to work out the difference in costs between continuing your existing process and implementing the systems to support a new process. Although systems ought to last at least seven years, I’d recommend a calculation based on five. Remember to take into account the following:

How much would you save on saved time and staff costs?

How much will the system really cost over five years, including extra licences, support, hardware, upgrades, maintenance, consultancy time, and so on?

How much of your time will it take to get the system implemented, and to manage it over the five years? (Usually far more than you think, so pad it out!) Put a realistic value on your time: not the direct cost – the value of your time to the business.

If there’s a business advantage to be had, how much extra profit or reduced cost is it worth? This is an essential component, and often adds up to far more than expected.

Are there other expenses (e.g. running costs of existing systems and services) you will be able to save?

When working these things out, it is easy to credit computer systems with qualities and abilities that are not realistic. Whatever the blurb about the system says, it will not:

Replace good business sense. That joke about ‘to err is human – to really mess up you need a computer’ is all too true.

Produce good, useful information by itself – quite the opposite in fact. If you don’t define and enforce proper use and quality controls on the information put into a system, you can guarantee you’ll soon learn the meaning of that other industry truism, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

Make itself popular. There is always a change management aspect that has to be addressed – allow for the time, cost and disruption involved.

Maintain itself or work all the time. Make sure you allow for proper support, backups, disaster recovery planning, and (after the last month’s weather) – disasters.

At this point you will either be terminally confused or you will have an idea of the effect (positive or negative) the system should have on your business. It is likely that you will also be shocked at the size of the numbers you have produced. The real cost of ICT systems is definitely high – often many times the ticket price – but the financial benefits are also just as surprising.

Once you have identified potential areas for computerisation – or updating – there is the matter of making the final selection of product and supplier. After that there is the art of getting the best out of both. I’ll tackle these in the next two issues.

Joel Teague is an IT advisory and software developer for business. He can be contacted at Teagus Limited: Tel: 0870 1417014 Website: www.teagus.com Email: joel.teague@teagus.com

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