Technology for Tough Times - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell
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Patching It Up

We’re not sure the business case for investing in software is always such a slam dunk, but Berger added at least one other idea for relatively low-cost (or free) software that can save money immediately.

Patch-management solutions automatically install operating system and application program security patches and upgrades over your local network, which eliminates the need for someone to go to each machine and do it manually.

“If you’ve got one IT guy and 20 machines, that saves valuable time,” Berger said. “If you have three IT guys and 100 machines, they desperately need this.”

Upgrade management products are often thought of as enterprise solutions, but they’re typically priced low enough that small businesses can use them too, Berger said. Indeed, some, such as Microsoft’s Windows Server Update Services, don't cost a thing.

While Woyzbun said there isn’t much in the way of new hardware purchases that could help a small business cope with the economic downturn, Berger sees it a little differently. Mind you, CDW sells hardware.

He argued that replacing old gear with new “green” equipment – choosing power-efficient Energy Star-compliant products – can produce immediate and long-term savings. Electricity to run information technology is an increasingly significant cost factor for businesses of all sizes, and Energy Star products reduce consumption.

Berger also made a case for replacing individual printers, faxes and photocopiers with modern all-in-one or multi-function products.

They save electricity – one device instead of three – and also supplies. The best of them foster a money-saving reduction in printing by making it possible to send faxes as PDF documents that never need to be printed.

“Ask a business owner what’s the bigger budget item, supplies or IT equipment, and most will probably say they spend more on supplies,” Berger said.

But you don’t have to buy all new equipment to reduce power costs.Just aggressive use of the power management features on existing equipment can help.

Berger also recommended a “green” power bar such as the APC Essential SurgeArrest 7 ($35). You plug a computer and peripherals into the bar, and it senses when the computer automatically powers down and turns off attached peripherals as well.

“It’s very simple and it gives you a tremendous power saving,” he said. Without such a product, peripherals can end up staying on, unused, 16 hours a day and all weekend.

Spending Less

In general, though, Woyzbun said, it makes more sense to curtail or reduce spending on IT. For example, delay upgrading operating systems to save both capital costs and overhead related to the transition.

“There is nothing wrong with running Windows XP for the next two to three years,” he said.

If you absolutely must buy new hardware, scale back – buy “utility-grade” products or even used gear. Small firms may over-buy because of exaggerated concerns about system reliability and performance, Woyzbun said.

“The reality in this economy is that the big risks to your business don’t come from the fact that your hardware is too slow or fails. They come from not being able to sell your products, or your customers not paying you.”

Besides, the reliability of even discount-priced hardware is fairly high, he said. And you can always upgrade to a unit with more bells and whistles when times are better.

Berger, interestingly, argued almost the exact oppositposition. Don’t buy used gear, it’s too unreliable. Do buy up-to-date equipment to get superior performance. Don’t buy from low-priced big box stores – you need expert guidance from technology specialists.

Who to believe? We’re going to side with Woyzbun on this one. At least until the economy improves.

Making the Most

Both men point out that small businesses can exploit technology at virtually no cost simply by taking advantage of more of the capabilities and features in products they already own. Berger estimates small firms use as little as 20 percent of available features.

“Many are losing productivity just because they never took the time to learn and adopt all the capabilities. Sometimes whistles and bells are just that. But a lot of times, people are missing out on core features.”

He’s often frustrated by small business employees who never learn basic office phone features such as how to transfer calls. Result: they waste time getting up to go and find the person they want to take the call.

Another easy example: not using automatic data backup software included with external hard drive products. Recovering or recreating lost data that was never backed up is a huge productivity drain, Berger pointed out – to the tune of “thousands and thousands of dollars” in small businesses.

Squandering productivity, especially in a tight economy, can drive a small firm under. And it’s often avoidable by using tools you already have.

Woyzbun says many small firms also fail to take advantage of valuable analytical and automation features in software. Companies use CRM to help manage a sales force, for example, but they don’t use included analytical and reporting functions that could provide intelligence – intelligence that could be even more valuable now.

“Many businesses can’t identify their top ten customers, or say how much revenue they represent,” he said. Having that information would help them focus on their most profitable customers – a smart strategy in a tight economy.

Another example: continuing to use spreadsheets and manual methods to help reconcile requisitions, purchase orders and receivables when the general ledger program you already use could automate the process.

“If you don’t use [these features], at the very least you’re spending labor unnecessarily,” Woyzbun said. “In the worst case, you calculate things incorrectly, and then you have reconciliation problems.”

Can technology save your bacon in a tanking economy?

Maybe not on its own. But ensuring you have the basics covered and making the best use of technology you already own can certainly help. And it doesn’t have to mean spending a bundle.

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This article was originally published on November 17, 2008
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