As businesses adapt to operating in a new landscape, both digitally and otherwise, one of the key challenges is understanding how these changes affect your business as well as how they can help it grow. 10 years ago it was widely accepted that you needed a website and maybe a few clever excel macros for your company, but that was sometimes the limit for SMEs.
What can be done on the web and how we do it has evolved greatly in the last decade. We have reached a point where digital products and tools, once the domain of large companies, can now be developed quickly and cost effectively. We are already surrounded by these applications from Jira to Microsoft Teams, services that enable a business or user to achieve something digitally that was once a more manual and time consuming process.
So the challenge now is not can technology help your business but how. Firstly, you must identify where there are opportunities in your business for digital products to make a real difference. Secondly, you need to consider how the tools and applications can be designed and implemented to best assist your operations and allow you to extend and scale them in the future.
It is sometimes easy to think of technology as being used to solve big, complex problems. However, some of the most effective tools are the simple ones that do one thing well, for example a digital to-do list. But what if that to-do list could also be shared with your team and tasks could be shared between multiple users? What if this same app could now group tasks into projects and then produce progress reports? All of a sudden we have a very basic project management tool, but it all started by digitising that one process. And there is the crux of it, none of these tools work well without data and none of them succeed without user buy-in.
When thinking about how digital tools can help your business it is best to think of what areas of friction you have in your day to day operations. Identify what will return the most value to you, as opposed to trying to conceive a grand all-encompassing system that touches everything. Start small and scale. So what flags should we be looking at along the way?
1. Repetitive tasks - do you have an intern/junior staff member copying and pasting data between multiple excel sheets? Do you have excel sheets with complex formulas you have to update with fresh data each month? Are these sheets core to your business operations? Repetitive tasks are some of the easiest to automate and in doing so you can improve accuracy and free your team up to focus on adding value to the business.
2.Tasks requiring high levels of accuracy - are there tasks that you are performing manually that need a high degree of accuracy? Whether that is reconciling financial data, generating reports based on trends in figures over time or simply forecasting.A comma or a decimal point in the wrong place can lead to inaccurate conclusions being drawn. Automated tools can have formulas and test criteria built into them to greatly reduce the chances of human error and ensure tasks are repeatable at speed.
3. Business insight data is not readily available - do you find you have to wait weeks to make decisions based on business performance? Are reports being pulled by various teams and then manually collated to identify opportunities and potential issues with how your business is operating? Is this insight data already out of date or not reflective of current performance by the time it is reviewed? By feeding this data directly into digital reporting tools, the manual grunt work of collating and presenting the information can be simplified and made available in close to real-time. This ensures that the information to make key business decisions is always available when it is needed and accurate.
There are, of course, many other areas in which technology can make an impact, including customer engagement and resource planning, but the above are some of the more common pain points our clients identify.
So you have decided that you do need a digital solution to your problem. The next step is to design how this will work and what tools and technologies you will use. Unless you have an in-house team it is likely at this stage you will want to engage with a digital agency or consultancy. This agency will help you refine the requirements and how the new application will fit with your existing tools and integrate correctly with your data sources.
Utilising existing productsOff-the-shelf products can greatly reduce the time and cost to implement new digital applications. If your problem is fairly common, the approach we often suggest is to find a tool that is well supported and answers your key business need (such as an ERP solution) and then build any custom integrations around it. This ensures that everything works together as seamlessly as possible.
The key thing to avoid here is finding lots of off-the-shelf systems and then trying to make them all talk to one another and hope it scales for the future. Although this approach can work as a proof of concept it is unlikely to serve you well in the future. As soon as you have 2 or 3 proprietary tools hooked together through custom integrations your technology suite can start to become brittle and hard to scale and expand in the future.
Custom solutionThere is one key drawback to using existing off-the-shelf products and that is you are always going to be limited in some respect. You may be forced to use their identity and access management (IAM) solution or you may be limited in what data can be accessed outside of their product in other areas of your digital tooling or quite simply the tool may be bloated with features you do not need.
To get exactly what you want it can be beneficial to take a custom approach and shape the application to your exact requirements. This doesn’t mean you can’t use any 3rd party tools, but the core of the system will be custom built to answer your exact business needs. The downside to this is it will usually be more costly and time consuming to implement but will lead to a more tailored end result.
There are a vast array of problems that can be solved with modern digital products. The key thing is to start small and identify the core areas where these tools can be used to assist. You can expand your systems over time as long as the effort and time is invested up front to design an architecture that can be extended and scaled with your business.
One of the main mistakes that people make is to think about the problem they have now and how that can be solved, rather than also trying to identify future opportunities as well. Although you don’t have to solve it all at once, it is useful to design systems understanding where they might go in the future.