Sometimes, we take technology for granted. For example, it was only a few years ago that smartphones hit the market, but now they seem positively mundane. While we are walking down the street, we can email, play games and browse the web. Looking a little further back, it was only 25 years ago that hard drive storage broke through the $1 per megabyte barrier, and yet we can spend $100 and get a terabyte drive today. That amount of storage would have cost a staggering $1 million back in the late 1980s.
Nowhere has the transformative power of technology being more evident than in business. Of course, email is one example – but it is only one. For instance, consider Google. Before the arrival of search engines, companies would maintain huge libraries of information, and subscribe to things such as newswires to help them keep up with industry advances. Researching a product could take weeks or months, and involve hundreds of hours of work. Now with Google, we have access to an enormous amount of free information from authoritative sources, and if the information is not free, we can find where to buy it in minutes.
The cloud has also fundamentally changed business over the last few years. Again, Google provides a perfect example of this. Google Docs lets us work collaboratively with colleagues, customers and suppliers, sharing information through spreadsheets and other documents in real time. Multiple people can work on documents simultaneously, streamlining communications and eliminating duplication. What is remarkable is that only a few years ago, we would have been reluctant to give up control of our data, and yet now we are confident that it is secure when we put it online.
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The cloud has also enabled completely novel business models that accelerate deployment of new business capabilities. Software as a Service (SaaS) allows new applications to be deployed almost instantaneously, without days or weeks of installation effort. For example, small businesses can set up their customer billing on FreshBooks in minutes, without having to install a local server or configure complex software. In fact, many companies are now using the cloud to integrate third-party components into their own business infrastructure using things such as Web services. As a result, they are able to dramatically increase the speed at which they can deliver new value to their customers, and are also able to optimize and augment their own internal business services without having to invest in new infrastructure and specialist knowledge.
Automation is also playing an enormous role in transforming business. In the past, companies may have had well-defined business processes, but they were manual and error-prone. Workflow technology vendors such as iDatix are now completely changing this. They provide automation software that drives business processes, making intelligent decisions about who should be working on particular activities, and ensuring that when one step in a process is completed, the next person in the chain is prompted automatically to start the next one. In fact, these systems are intelligent enough to kick off multiple activities in parallel when needed, and then move on to the next stage once all of these have been successfully completed.
To take a simple example, think about when a customer calls up with a support issue. Someone answers the phone and records the details in a trouble ticket. However, depending on the customer and type of problem, that trouble ticket could go to one of many different destinations. The person on the phone could follow a predefined set of rules and determine where they should route the ticket, but a process automation system does that automatically, depositing the ticket on the work queue of the right employee. This approach is much more efficient, avoids errors, and allows the complete history of the ticket to be tracked.
Of course, workflow management systems are not just about handling support tickets. They can be used to automate almost any business process – for example, automatically reordering stock when inventory levels start to become depleted, or even notifying the correct salesperson when marketing receives a lead. However, these workflow systems aren’t inventory systems or sales management systems – instead, they integrate all of these systems and drive end-to-end processes across them. In many cases, they also integrate the data that these systems contain, so that – for instance – a customer service representative has a single, integrated view of a customer’s history, including previous support calls, account information, and the products or services which they have purchased.