While technology is notoriously fast-moving, I don't find the word "renaissance" inappropriate for a convergence of technologies that have benefited small and medium businesses in particular. Not since the advent of the (relatively) low-cost personal computer that first allowed smaller businesses access to computing capability have we seen technologies that were once the domain of Fortune 500 behemoths become available to smaller companies. Not only are the technologies available, frankly smaller companies are better poised to leverage many of them than their larger brethren. Here are the two pillars of this renaissance and how your SMB can best use them.
At this point, cloud computing is so buzzword-laden as to make the term nearly meaningless. For an SMB, the prime function of cloud computing is that it lets you buy enterprise-grade applications at a commodity price, complete with support, development, and engineering that would have been previously inaccessible. With a valid credit card and an afternoon's work, even the smallest company can purchase and provision everything from email and online collaboration tools to CRM and ERP applications. Rather than being watered down SMB versions, many of these tools are the same ones the big boys have spent years installing and configuring, and spent millions maintaining. In sort, with a few mouse clicks, you can buy back office technical parity with an average large company for a pittance.
For the SMB, the major benefit of cloud computing is that it keeps you out of the IT infrastructure business. Microsoft, Google, SalesForce.com, or a slew of other companies effectively become your IT department, freeing your company to focus on its core business and customers. For even larger SMBs, getting your IT department out of the infrastructure business frees them for higher value work. Keeping the email server up is a necessary evil at best, and if you can refocus those efforts on higher-value work, you effectively double your savings by letting someone else worry about these core applications.
It's unlikely any single person I hire will ever manage and maintain an email server as well as Microsoft or Google, and for what seems like a shockingly low price I can purchase the expertise of these companies and add or subtract capacity as needed. Even high-end application software is now available for a song, and usually provides you with access to the latest versions and technology months before the "big boys" get around to implementing them. Having "grown up" doing enterprise implementations of exactly these types of applications, I find it earth shattering that I can buy the same tools and services with an annual budget that would have been exhausted in minutes by a large-scale implementation team.
Mobile technologies have exploded in the consumer space, and SMBs are poised to leverage them to the hilt. The action in mobile used to be in the large enterprise space, with heavyweight RIM and its BlackBerry infrastructure remaining out of reach of smaller businesses due to cost and complexity. The tables have turned, and Apple and Android are now where the action is, while huge BlackBerry installations and the associated infrastructure are looking anachronistic and unwieldy, with a dearth of applications to extend their functionality.
While larger competitors consider device policies, trial deployments, and integration with their existing infrastructure, the SMB can buy an iPhone or Android device at a local retailer and have it running in minutes. The mobile space is largely limited only to your imagination, but the power of a connected computing device with access to data anywhere in the world is a powerful asset. I routinely access our Salesforce.com-based CRM tool from my iPhone and iPad before speaking with a client, and can craft and send meeting notes from my iPad to my team in seconds. Within moments of meeting a prospect I can send them a tailored email with marketing collateral and articles I think they'll find helpful, making my tiny company look well-organized, responsive, and technologically savvy.
If your business has any field presence whatsoever, be it sales or field service, mobile access to data could be a killer advantage. Something as simple as ordering repair parts from the field used to be the domain of large companies with million-dollar service organizations, but now can be accomplished by a small company with cloud software and a smartphone. While the big boys are trying to decide which security features to enable or disable, you could be wowing customers with more nimble, better-informed field personnel.
Technology is never a magic elixir, and despite marketing to the contrary, throwing cloud computing or mobile devices at a bad business model will accomplish little. What's exciting about this technological renaissance is that it makes IT more accessible and flexible for smaller companies, blurring the competitive advantage once held by your largest competitors. The nimble nature of smaller businesses serves to increase this effect. In short, while you always were lighter on your feet, now you can wield the IT tools once reserved for your competitors.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.