Will Computers Ever Meet the Expectations Of Small Businesses?

 


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Old School Vision of Computers

As a child of the 60’s, I grew up watching Hollywood’s vision of the computer of the future. I use to watch in amazement as TV character would feed a question into a computer and an obscure answer would immediately be spit out. I remember playing “computer" with my grade school friends in the neighborhood. I put a cardboard box over me with a light bulb jammed in the middle of it with a slot in the front. I would have my friends write a question on a piece of paper and slip it threw the slot, and as I made ‘bleeping’ and ‘zooping’ noises, I replied to their questions about the universe, the best a grade school child could.

I eventually outgrew the Hollywood vision of computers, or at the very least, Hollywood’s vision for the computers of the future became a little more realistic. Although, the reoccurring notion that computers will solve all our problems won’t go away. As recently as five or six years ago, I remember seeing a commercial promoting the Internet and how it will magically solve all our woes, minus all the ‘bleeping’ and ‘zooping’ I remember from TV as a child.

Unfortunately, the promises of computers and the Internet have lagged behind our expectations of them, especially the expectations of small businesses. While large multinational corporations have been able to afford IT departments that could create specific applications to suite their needs, many small businesses were left out in the cold during the “computer revolution". If a small business had a specific need or requirement with respects to automating their business process, their only choice was to hire a computer consultant, who could take weeks, and possible months, to write their program, and charge a cost prohibitive amount for the service.

Unfortunately, the reality is that most small businesses have been left with the same applications and programs they’ve been using for the last 10 years. Computers for the small business resemble a typewriter of the past more than Hollywood’s image of the computer of the future. At best, some small companies might have an individual on their staff that could create elaborate Spreadsheets, but more times than not, a computer was seen begrudgingly as items of unfulfilled promises.

The Second Coming of Computers

Over the last four or five years, there has been another “computer revolution", and unlike the “computer revolution" of the mid to late 90’s, that mostly affected consumers and large businesses, this one is aimed at small businesses.

Threw the mid to late 90’s, innovators and visionary’s toted the Internet as the end-all-beat-all to everyone’s woes and problems with promises of a “new economy" and riches for all. Everyone was excited about the promise of computers, and everyone was eager to hop on the Internet dot com bandwagon. I’m sure most people know of someone that attempted to make money off the Internet, from that cousin that attempted to start a web site, to that neighbor that changed careers and went threw a technical training to learn programming or systems administration.

When the tech bust of 2000 happened, thousands of individuals that had hoped to reach their goals threw computers and the Internet, found themselves unemployed and ferociously competing for jobs. Within a matter of months, job postings that were only receiving two or three resumes were suddenly being flooded with resumes. Over the course of months it went from being an employee’s market to being an employers market.

The tragic events of 9/11 were what put the computer industry into a tailspin and ironically opened up the possibility of the second “computer revolution". As corporations froze their budgets and killed projects, thousand more individuals found themselves unemployed. For roughly one and a half years, the computer industry seemed to die on the vine, and as individuals began to become despondent, they began to change careers again hoping to make an income that could support their families and life styles.

Fortunately, a certain percentage of individuals refused to give up on a career in the IT industry, and many programmers began to search for alternatives to being employed by large corporate IT departments. Some were bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and began writing programs for industries they were familiar with from past careers. As new entrepreneurs began with limited budgets and resources, many of these programs were targeted towards smaller businesses.

Is There a Limit to the Industries Affected?

I myself use to consult with Fortune 500 companies, have moved my practice to small and mid-sized corporations. Since doing so I’ve become amazed at the evolution I’ve seen in some of the most surprising industries. The industry I’m most surprised with is the pest control industry. I have an acquaintance that has a pest control business. Basically he catches rats and mice for the food service industries.

We were talking one day about the subject of a second “computer revolution", when he began to share his own experience with it. Apparently, he had purchased an application that utilizes a bar code reader that records the status of his mice and rat traps. As he goes from customer to customer, he scans the traps and records the status of the trap, if it was empty, had a catch or even if the trap was gone. After he is done with his route for the day, he goes back to his office and downloads the data into his application and is able to compile trends at his customer’s sites.

With the use of this database, he no longer has to rely on his memory, guessing, or digging threw paper work to figure out what is going on at his customer’s sites. He can simply use his application and have his database tell him if his customer’s site is clean, infested or if the infestation has moved. Based on these reports, he is able to sell his customers more accurate services and products based on their individual needs. He claims his business has grown approximately 12% over the last two years threw the use of this product.

After I moved my practice to small and mid-sized business, I stumbled across a small application that I have since recommended to many of my customers in the Service Industry. I had a customer that is in the Chimney Sweep industry, and for their industry, the business is considered quite large with 9 trucks and approximately 30 employees. They had been experiencing many problems with issues like inventory, dispatching/scheduling, and invoicing they wished to correct threw the use of a customized application.

In an attempt to make the business more productive and profitable, they had contacted me with the desire my company write a program that would fulfill all their needs. Upon assessing their requirements I quickly analyzed that that it would be a more cost effective solution to identify an existing product that could fulfill all their needs. After a few days of searching I discovered an Enterprise Resource Planner (ERP) for small Service-oriented industries.

The application was written by a group of three programmers who found their jobs outsourced to India in 2002. One of them had experience in the HVAC industry prior to changing his career in the mid 90’s, after discovering himself unemployed but still with hopes of staying in the IT industry, he wrote the application with two of his former co-workers.

After discovering the software vendor, I worked with them to identify their products full potential and eventually established it was flexible enough to be a good match for my customer’s requirements. With a good deal of hindsight, the programmers developed their product on Open Source technology, which allows parts of programs to be distributed for free, allowing it to be created for a fraction of the cost their counter parts of the 90’s.

My customer is now able to manage invoicing, purchase orders, inventory, scheduling/dispatch, and Marketing with two – three office employees verses the four – five they need a few years ago. The application, which the multi-user version costs approximately $2,500 and the single-user version costs approximately $650, is very cost effective.

For a smaller business to have an application of this versatility and functionality would have been unfathomable prior to 2001. I have since installed this application into several customers, all of which have become dependant upon it for the smooth operation of their companies.

The Promise has Finally Arrived

For smaller companies wishing to experience the promises of computers the time is finally here. More and more small computer vendors are springing up, producing complex and cost effective applications and products for most conceivable industries.

For small businesses to reap the benefits of present technology, they need to:

1. Know exactly what business process you wish to affect with the introduction of software.

2. Do your homework on the Internet, there are many small software vendors out there, if you do a through search, a vendor can be found with the solutions you need.

3. If you wish to use a consultant to identify a solution, don’t assume they are familiar with your industries needs and requirements. Ask what experience and solutions they’ve had with your specific industry.

4. Get references, an established firm should be able to produce previous customers that can vouch for their quality of work.

5. Get a break down of the costs involved with the installation of the product. Get it in writing if there is any training or tech support.

6. A consulting firm should be attentive to you and your needs. There are good consulting firms out there and there are bad consulting firms out there, the difference should be evident in the amount of effort and energy they spend to identify the correct solution for you and your company.

While we are definitely in the beginning of the second computer revolution, unfortunately, if you are expecting to magically obtain the benefits of it, chances are you’ll be let down. Expect to do some work when trying to find the right solution for you and your business. The more energy you spend in trying to find the right solution will directly equate out to the amount of increased productivity and profitability your company will experience after the solution is installed.

While computer solutions may never reach the point where an individual will simply input a question or problem and suddenly receive an answer, small businesses are much further ahead of where they were five years ago.

Keith Tyson
Midwest Business Performance, Inc.
http://www.mbp-inc.net

(1889)

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