It’s all up there for the taking

No matter what size your business is, you would do well to look at the cloud for some options for optimising your business efficiency and competitive advantage.

May 22, 2012

No matter what size your business is, you would do well to look at the cloud for some options for optimising your business efficiency and competitive advantage.

Using cloud services is about getting services over the web, instead of either using a CD or disk to install software on your computer or buying some bulky computer equipment for your office.

The advent of web and cloud services in South Africa marks a turning point in business efficiency and how competitive businesses can be. How? Because it gives SMMEs in particular access to a full range of world-class services with high-end features that were previously only available to big companies with big IT departments and big budgets. Services are now available on demand – at the click of a button – and pricing is based on usage which means there is very little wastage.

Actually, the cloud is not all that new. We have been using cloud-hosted email for years already – Gmail, Blackberry. The word ‘cloud’ has just become clearer now. It’s also more topical nowadays because it’s having a knock-on effect for other related industries too: data storage, virtual servers, CRM, payroll, document processing, banking, and business telephony.

Once upon a time, the use of information technology services was novel and it gave businesses a significant competitive advantage. We saw massive ERP, database and processing type systems designed and built for large corporates. However, like all advancements, eventually it is made possible for these services to be provided more efficiently and more widely. Much like a hundred years ago when transmitters made the use of electricity more commonplace – by being able to carry electricity from the generator over long distances – so the cloud is now providing anyone access to more advanced technology and services.

By using cloud services for business, the benefits are implicit:

• You can focus on your core business. You don’t need to manage the service yourself
• The cloud opens the door for smaller business that would not have been able to afford the full cost of ownership
• You can access services on demand and make the transition to the next level as your business grows. There are no upfront prohibitive costs
• Cloud services are accessible everywhere you have an internet connection. You are not reliant on a specific computer/machine at a specific location
• With a wide array of devices used today, the cloud is even more important for enabling access from multiple phones, tablets, computers, etc.

Business telephony turned on its head

One good example of how the cloud works for businesses is in the telecommunications sphere. In the past, a business used to need to buy a big expensive telephone system and face the ongoing maintenance costs of that system. Dealing with business growth on these systems was another problem because you would need to make another purchase if you needed more capacity, if you set up a new branch or if you needed additional or special functionality. Cloud computing has brought cloud hosted telephony systems like www.officeconnection.co.za. Suddenly the old paradigm of business telephony is turned on its head – even a small start-up entrepreneur can access high quality business communications. With telephony provided as a simple web service, this means you can register online, get an office number to present to clients, add all your staff and their extensions and manage incoming calls to decide which staff member should answer, or set up a virtual receptionist … all through a web interface. It’s much like managing your email account.

The ease of getting all kinds of critical services in the cloud is affecting many business functions and, more and more companies are lining up to provide services. Some local and international examples are:

• Document Processing: www.google.com/Apps; www.office365.com
• Business Email: www.mynextmail.com; www.google.com/Apps
• Project & Task Management: www.asana.com; www.jivesoftware.com; www.podio.com; deskaway.com; lighthouseapp.com; basecamphq.com; www.smartsheet.com; Information Management: www.teamlab.com; www.huddle.com; www.centraldesktop.com; pbworks.com
• Customer Relationship Management: www.salesforce.com; www.pipelinedeals.com; www.zoho.com/crm; highrisehq.com; www.sugarcrm.com
• Customer Support: www.zendesk.com; www.activecampaign.com; www.assistly.com; uservoice.com; getsatisfaction.com
• FAQ’s/Knowledge bases: www.nanorep.com
• Virtual Services & Data Storage: www.rsaweb.co.za; www.hetzner.co.za; aws.amazon.com/ec2; www.rackspace.co.za
• Payroll & Financial Management: www.payspace.co.za; www.vippayroll.co.za; FNB Instant Accounting;
• Design & web design Tools: www.sampleboard.com; www.yola.com;
• Business Plans: www.liveplan.com; www.bplans.com;

In deciding if a cloud service is any good, it’s worth considering the following: the service must be fully exposed through an easy-to–use web interface and you should be able to do all the things you need to do for the complete service. You should not need to call the company to set up the service.

• The service should be fully comprehensive and save lots of time and money (compared to what you would have had to do in the past). In other words, it’s not okay to get a half product just because it’s more affordable. You should be getting a high-end product. Quality should not be compromised at all.
• The service must be locally relevant. For some services this doesn’t matter at all, but for financial management and payroll, local regulations, such as tax laws, are important.
• The service must be accessible from multiple devices and not just computers. The point here is that you should not be tied to a specific device and should be able to access the service from multiple points.

Your business, no matter how small, can function like a world-class business by using cloud-based services. There are so many affordable tools available to entrepreneurs today; tools that are so good that even large corporate companies are starting to use them. Some of these tools are even free. Certainly, it’s worth spending a little time to find the right tools so that you can make the paradigm shift for your business to operate at optimum efficiency and competitiveness.

Don’t be the last company standing … on the ground … looking up at the clouds and wondering what’s out there – because it’s all there for the taking right now!