Technology for small businesses - on your terms
As part of our series on how small and medium-sized firms use technology - which will run throughout March - we ask experts for their views.
Adrian Kelly heads-up R&D for leading business software and services provider Sage in the UK and Ireland. With more than 6 million users globally using its accounts, payroll and CRM products, Sage's software is used by millions of small businesses.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and their employees increasingly want to do business on their own terms - whether it's flexible working, mobile working, collaborative working or more.
Technology has a fundamental role to play in transforming how we do business and succeed.
Tech-savvy, with an army of smartphone and tablet devices and the know-how to navigate commerce, communities and services online, work-life boundaries are blurring for individuals and business leaders, and as a result, the experience and capabilities of technology in business are transforming.
Usable user interfaces
The consumerisation of IT has given us all a much greater freedom to choose precisely what information is accessed at the appropriate time.
Smart software has also helped SMEs prioritise and protect what information is viewed by relevant people regardless of location, making e-commerce and m-commerce a competitive reality.
So long as information is delivered in a meaningful format that is quick to access, easy to view and efficient to use, the back office responsibilities of reliability and security are all too often assumed.
Responsibility for data integrity and protection will increasingly fall to the small business and its technology partners.
In the future, as we talk less about hardware and more about devices, the way we choose to interact with data will evolve.
Voice activation, video cameras and touch screens will continue to compete with the mouse and keyboard. Consequently, user interfaces will become far more bespoke and personalised in the future to deliver the right level of information to individuals at the right time.
After all, we each interpret data differently and we all have a preference for the devices we choose to use.
Digitisation of business
Today, data within small businesses still tends to be siloed and locked down, as software and systems are purchased in a standalone way by individuals or specialist teams who look after a function like payroll or marketing.
But to be effective in unlocking true business potential and aid growth, technology needs to be integrated so that it can provide accurate insights in real time.
Online platforms in the cloud have fast tracked the digitisation of data - as has government legislation around the globe - from financial reporting to the way technology is changing payment models for SMEs.
But with so much business critical information digitised and available beyond the walls of the workplace, small business owners will want the freedom to choose where to host their data and how to protect it - locally, in the cloud, or most likely a combination of the two.
By digitising information and giving users a choice of how they access and analyse that shared data, technology will make more use of the rich information that exists within organisations.
Traditionally untapped insights will provide new opportunities for SMEs to drive competitive advantage and performance beyond divisional and geographic borders.
Small and growing businesses will increasingly look to technology as means to discover their potential and as a driver for growth.
Redefining the office
While business software enables small firms to realise the full value of their digital business intelligence, social networks will increasingly be used to help organisations identify new markets and engage new audiences on an unlimited scale.
But technology will never fully replace people's fundamental need for social interaction and the role of a physical workplace - be it an office or a business community hub.
Good technology infrastructure and lightning fast broadband access will naturally dictate where SMEs choose to set themselves up and influence how well they can compete - locally and on a global stage.
Government investment in technology infrastructure will affect the reputation of industries and entire nations in the international marketplace. Technology will play an increasing critical role in fuelling economic recovery and competitiveness.
Setting new standards for support and services
Small business owners are, and always will be, very pragmatic about their choice of technology, as what matters ultimately is getting the job done in the most timely and accurate way.
The opportunity to buy software as a service (SaaS) has created, amongst other benefits, more flexible payment options for SMEs, whilst the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablet devices has created an environment where entrepreneurs are used to snacking on apps and services.
This is something we will increasingly see more of in the business world.
No matter how individuals and organisations choose to consume their technology, their expectations for customer support and advice will remain high.
Those technology partners that offer 24/7 telephone support and a choice of online support tools will set new standards for how small businesses can rely on software and services and realise their full potential.