With most new corporate technologies, large enterprises spearhead adoption while those of us in smaller companies watch from the sidelines, waiting for the technology to become less expensive to acquire, implement, and maintain. Smaller companies also lack the human resources of larger companies, so even with relatively cheap consumer-based technologies like tablets, finding a spare set of hands to spec, purchase, and deploy a new device can be more costly than the device itself. This might make you question whether or not there’s a place for tablets in a small enterprise.

Are tablets a tool or an R&D strategy?

For any size business, one of the first questions that they should ask is whether tablets represent a tool that fulfills an immediate need or whether it’s a technology with enough potential to make it worth bringing in-house for R&D purposes. The former makes an obvious case for a technology; if there’s an immediate problem where a light and portable device optimized for viewing web-based content can help, tablets are a slam dunk.

In the latter case, investing in a technology merely for R&D purposes may seem like an impractical extravagance for a smaller company; however, smaller businesses have the significant advantage of being more nimble. Smaller companies also have the distinct advantage of having IT staff who wear many hats and may have a more detailed understanding of the various business processes and activities of the company. In essence, what smaller companies lack in money, they can make up for with flexibility.

Tablets and the cloud, a small business’s best friend?

A disconnected tablet is a fine device for carrying large amounts of interactive information (or entertainment), but the real magic for smaller businesses is a connected tablet combined with commodity cloud services. Equipping some members of each business function of your company with a tablet and access to various services might be a great way to spur innovation. In my own company, my tablet provides one small weapon against my massive competitors. When I visit a potential client, I connect to our cloud-based CRM tool and review all our interactions with that client as well as my “game plan” for the meeting, which was created earlier in my office on a cloud-based notebook tool.

I capture notes on the tablet during meetings (when appropriate) that I can instantly share with colleagues. After the meeting is over, I can send interesting articles or marketing information to the potential client within minutes or hours rather than the days my competitors usually require. While all of this is certainly possible with a laptop and cellular network device, the tablet makes the process so easy there are no excuses. While content creation remains a challenge on tablets, the ability to browse, search, and send information quickly and easily can be a huge benefit to any organization.

Consider what information various parties in your company use on a regular basis, particularly around customer information and data gathering. Look for opportunities where speed and superior information present a competitive advantage. These could range from providing superior technical information for a field service organization, to accurate product and inventory information that allows for cross-selling or upselling while you have a customer in front of one of your salespeople.

Internally, look for situations where high-value, rapidly changing data could facilitate better decision making. Most of us have been in situations where an executive said something to the effect of “if only that paper report were ‘live,'” which might be perfect opportunities for tablet-based reporting. While it seems extreme, month- and year-end closes, promotion testing, and new product launches are all situations where current data present a competitive advantage to your business, and where tablets and commodity cloud services could easily deliver that data.

There’s an obvious careful balance between chasing technology for technology’s sake, and being left behind while endlessly waiting for a technology to mature. While they can help, no pundit, vendor, or consultant can give you perfect answers. Especially in smaller companies, R&D-type efforts and discussions with your peers can plant the seeds for beneficial rollouts of technology-like tablets. However, if your gut and conversations with peers tell you now is not the time, no one knows your business better than you do.