Using Technology to Increase Business Productivity

You’ll see a lot of articles with this title around and about.  But there’s one thing that a large proportion of them completely miss. The single most important asset to your business productivity.

Your people.

These articles will tell you that a CRM software solution will transform your communication. They will also tell you that virtual teams/working brings people closer together. That online performance evaluations can streamline staff development, motivate and review performance.

What few of them tell you is how to properly manage the change.

You see we humans are fickle animals – we struggle to accept change in general. And the fight or flight response can trigger a negative reaction if we’re not completely onboard.

This is something that technology firms roundly overlook. And it’s hard to hold that against them really.  They do their specialist role – a lot of the work is very complex but has little relation to how the office receptionist will feel, or the guys in the drawing office and so on.

Any technology project that requires “users” to operate the final product will be worse off for not involving them.

Why?

Any time a technology “improvement” is delivered to people who were not expecting it it’s easy to see their unhappy.  That unhappiness generally stems from the lack of involvement in the process.

We can’t very well expect every single member of staff to be involved in every single technology purchasing decision. But the ones that result in a large proportion needing that technology for a business improvement project?

Ignore them at your peril.

Any technology project I’ve worked on previously has been greatly enhanced by involving staff at an early stage.  Even if you have a top notch supplier providing the solution they can get on better by being more accepted, even if it’s just getting a cuppa whilst on site.

But more than that, it’s your staff that are there before, during and after the project. And it’s your staff who will live with the output of that project.  Anything you can do to improve the experience for them will make all the difference.

We often see phones systems using about 10% of their functionality because staff don’t know how to use them.  People angry with computers and peripherals because they’ve just been given them or, worse, turned up to find new stuff on their desk.

By thinking a little bit about how to involve them and make them feel like part of the process it helps to break down the walls of acceptance.

The best bit is you don’t even have to do it!  Just make sure your solutions provider includes it as part of their work.

 

We ALWAYS consider a clients staff in all project work and strongly recommend their involvement even on a very simple basis as this is the perfect way to accentuate the success of any technology productivity project.

23 THOUSAND emails in your Inbox?

We are becoming more and more reliant on our digital systems. Unfortunately most of these systems are dumb by design. Take the topic of this blog. Email management. How well do you do it?

For many years email management provided by client software has been limited at best.  And whilst it has improved over time the automation will generally just mean a chunk of mail moves into a separate file (note: file, not folder).

I’m not writing this blog to poke fun at those people that only use their inbox and within have all of their many thousands of emails stacked up. Nor am I internationally being critical of people who have nearly as many sub folders as they do emails.

Each to their own!

My best suggestion passed out over the years is to have a “system” – that would be a personal system.  And what’s more make it one of your own design.

Why a system?  The simple answer is for expediency, speed, efficiency, great organisation, skill.

And why do you have to “design” it?  Buy-in. If you create it you’re going to use it aren’t you?

If someone else comes along and tells you you need to create a folder per client and one for bills in, bills out, and so on……chances are you might only give it a half-hearted try.

So in and of itself having lots of emails in your inbox isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, from a technical point of view, it makes things a bit more complicated.

Physically scrolling takes time.  Yes, you can search, but only if you know who/what you’re searching for.  (Don’t laugh, do you remember the names of ALL of the people you spoke to, over email, in the last few years!?). Some systems limit content by size, time, date, other parameters.

Having a system also can provide confidence, which in turn can relax you, and that can help you in being more organized and generally just a much cooler personal generally!

Of course you want to know if I have a system don’t you?  (What do you mean no?!)

For my own personal email management I’ve adapted a form of “Inbox Zero” which is aimed at keeping your inbox empty or as near to it at all times.

The process in a nutshell;

Use folders/sub folders – organize mail into folders
Remove distraction – close the mail client for periods of the day
Clear down regularly – I try to clear down the inbox at least once a day
Priority processing – process mail via priority usually following a clear down

How it works;

Using priority sub folders; “aFile” “bFile” etc
Clearing down the Inbox means move all mail into priority folders – quick scan and move
Respond to mail in highest priority folder first, move to next priority folder when previous is empty
Use nested folders to easily move chunks of mail; All client mail placed into Client folder, then that folder is sorted in the relevant sub folders
Use a bit of automation to move stuff you might only read if you have time

It’s not a perfect method by any stretch of the imagination, but there are some definite benefits in doing this.  I feel so much better about the whole concept of communication as a result and generally I can find the stuff I need most of the time.

Another point about this is that you must not set it in stone.  If something isn’t working quite right then adjust. When I first started I had far too many top-level folders so I reduced the number and it worked better.

Call it adapting technology to better support you – since that’s what it is, and what ALL technology should do – spend a little time, get it working the way you want it.

Go on your own email management journey, I dare you!

Oh and to answer my own question – I currently have THREE!

Software helplessness

One of the guiding principles of how I work in business is to try to create IT systems that function well enough to the point that the clients staff are able to get on with more important tasks, such as work!

There are many things we can control, most of them with a reasonable level of autonomy that enables us to course correct behind the scenes if needed.

It’s all with a mind to reduce the amount of time staff have to deal with niggling IT problems.

Unfortunately there are always going to be issues that are beyond control, so lets look at two of them;

First of all fancy schmancy cloud-based software – and yes, I’m looking at you Office 365!

Once upon a time we had to install software from disks, now CD, DVD, even USB stick supplied software has gone the same way as the Dinosaur.

And I’m mostly ok with that. I’ve no objection to companies wanting to try to reduce their overheads (it’s cheaper to download software than press CDs, just not as cool!) or even keep a stealthy check on just how many times that copy has been installed.

But what frustrates is when that software does not work properly, and more critically in going wrong it interrupts my clients work!

There is a strange duality to technology fault fixing, time taken to apply work-arounds vs time takes to cut losses and fresh install. We used to calculate this to be about three hours for a commercial Windows install (we were using a custom network install it has to be said) if the job looks to go over go for fresh.

To complete a fresh install you can use a small bit of software that guts a PC of all files relating to Office 365, there is then a small list of stuff that can be manually removed.

But on doing this, rebooting, and reinstalling – maybe an hours work total, the problem simply springs back into life.

Frustrating.

To the other end of the spectrum, and some bespoke management software bits of which simply refuse to work, the supplier is adamant that “hardly anyone has this problem” and “you must have set up the PC wrong”

Picture if you will the software vendor and the technical support as two majestic Stags engaged in an epic headbutting duel for the ages.

Except as part of the process you are able to replicate the same fault on a brand new, out of the box, system – add one to the list of “hardly anyone”

Experience has taught me that there are some epic headbutting duels you’ll simply never win, but you’ll still know where the fault is, and it’s unlikely to be accepted in that way, unless suddenly everything gets the same problem at the same time.

Unfortunately you still have the user, who suffers that irritating popup, or lack of expected functionality and, if you’re a decent type, you’ll not want to waste your clients time (and money!) in hours of to and fro trying chance upon a fix.

So the hardest thing of all, you have to admit you can’t fix the problem – certainly in the case of Office issues have come and gone – and how can that be? Well the software is updating periodically in the background.

2+2=365 in that situation.

Since writing this Chris has experienced additional software helplessness and is currently hiding in a darkened corner sharpening his antlers in anticipation of his next battle.

Mission Critical – Keeping Going

In previous blog posts we talked of identifying and preparing for failures and now we’re staring one in the face – your internet connection is down and chaos is about to ensue….what next?

Remember we recorded items that would cause a serious problem in the event of failure? Each one needs to be looked at separately to come up with a failure fix and, if possible, a work around.

Depending on how in-depth you really want to get depends greatly on how much panic and confusion will reign if failures occur – I prefer to be calm, collected, covered and above all, Cornish!

So I’ve looked at my router manual, I know what all of the lights mean, I can look at my router during an internet failure and deduce if it’s a hardware fault or elsewhere.

This time it all looks ok – we can even browse to its web interface, log in and see it’s operational.

So, as previously mentioned, we have to look back “up the line” the router is ok, what about the phone line? I have a phone plugged into it too which I can pick up, dial 123 and find out what time it is – all seems well.

Now I refer to my (specifically created for my business) documentation and find out the contact details of my Internet Service Provider before giving them a call.

I am greeted with a recorded message “We are experiencing high volumes of calls due to the current outage – please call back later” and the line goes dead.

And it’s at this point you’ll realise, if not before, why I said that if your internet connection drops out the recovery really is in the lap of the gods. The majority of ISP’s don’t supply their own connections rather resell others, so they have to report the outage themselves and wait.

Next step is to refer to your workaround.

Having a small business means you are a bit more agile by default, if you’re a one-person concern it’s often just a matter of picking up your portable device and heading off to the nearest Pub/Coffee shop/Café/Restaurant/Other place with free wifi and carrying on as before.

You might be lucky and own a mobile phone that allows tethering, a neat way of sharing the data on the phone with other devices, or maybe you have a mobile broadband dongle you can either use on your router or computer.

Whatever the work-around it’s time to apply it. And here’s the benefit of being small and agile, you can usually ride these outages out without too much stress, imagine if you had a dozen members of staff all sat in an office especially those with on-site services & servers that need internet.

Just this week I visited a company who had an outage that affected just two PCs – staff explained without them they simply had no work at all they could do.

This is one compelling reason why it’s really important to get a handle on these serious business-affecting issues, work out how much of a pain they are to you and put in place some plans for what you (and your people) do if they happen – the more severe the more seriously you need to consider investment in a more robust solution being a general rule of thumb.

Next time we’ll take a look at third-party suppliers and how to ensure they give you the best service/response they can possibly.

Mission critical – Planning for failure

Expect technology to fail, it’s one of its favourite things!

Better that and plan for it than be unprepared. Let’s consider an example of the Internet connectivity of a work from home micro business;

Work in a line, from the bottom to the top, or one end to the other.

First, ignore the Internet connection!

Why?

Internet connections have a service “guarantee” (more on that later) which sets out what you can expect. Beyond that you have little control – if it breaks it’ll be back when it’s back.
(The golden rule here: if it breaks, log the fault and keep pestering till it’s fixed).

Phone line next. It may be with a separate provider and is easy to test if, in the event of a failure, the fault is with line or connection – hint: a corded phone and mobile are handy here,
If you establish the failure is a line fault, report it and wait.

Next in line is our Internet router. As anything outside of the router is almost completely out of our control this is the first item we can properly look to secure.

We can mitigate power failures and protect from surges (we get a lot of “dirty” power here in Cornwall, surges cause damage). Even a modest (cheap) UPS will keep a router running for a good while.

If we have a router failure, we have options; reset to factory, get it fixed or swap it out. Assuming you have a backup of your settings (and if you don’t you really should!) reset/re-apply/replace as needed.

We mentioned severity before. If your internet router properly breaks it’s going to take a MINIMUM of one day to get a replacement (unless you live very near to a store that sells them) so your thoughts must include if can you cope with a day offline?

Portable device owners could work from another location. If you have a mobile broadband device/phone, you can use that instead. But, depending on your setup, your existing Office may be offline until a replacement is in hand, so you might consider keeping a spare.

This is, unfortunately, the high cost of preventing failures. If you max out your preventative measures you will need to at least purchase; a mobile broadband device (or use a mobile phone), UPS and a spare router.

Beyond your router lies your tools, the pen and paper of your business, either computers/laptops and printers/scanners. If you work in the cloud you need internet, if you work with local software you can still do some things without it.

Everything is replaceable in the event of a failure, but you still need to be aware just how you would do that if/when it does so planning is crucial.

A daunting process just for an individual working at home, imagine the permutations for larger firms and the myriad things they might want to consider?!

Next we’ll look at how you can keep going when something breaks.