Archive for the 'Small Business' Category

How to Set up Your Micro-business Web Site on a Tight Budget – Part 3

WordPress

In this, the third part of the article for micro-businesses that want to set up a Web site, I will outline the additional steps you will need to get a new site up and running on the “self-hosted” version of WordPress – choosing a Web site hosting service , registering a domain, installing the WordPress content management software and customising your site with a theme and plug-ins.

Why Use Self-hosted WordPress?

If you find a particularly appealing custom theme on the Internet, or decide that you could usefully take advantage of some of the functionality offered by the 22,000+ plug-ins that are available, then you will need to install and run (“self-host”) the WordPress.org software on a Web host. To do so, you will first need to register your preferred domain with a Web hosting company then install WordPress on the host. It sounds difficult, but it’s really very straightforward.

Web Hosting

There are plenty of Web hosts to choose from (search Google “top web hosts uk” for comparison sites). You can expect to pay anything from £2 to £10 per month for a hosted domain, depending on the plan you choose and the duration you pay for. As you will need to install WordPress, choose a host that offers “one click installation” (search Google for “one click installation wordpress” to see what I mean). WordPress is free to install and you should also get a number of email addresses for your domain and several other services, such as autoresponders, backup, a file manger, an FTP file transfer account and Web site analytics.
After opening an account with the host of your choice, you will have to wait (up to three days) for the Web registration process (called “DNS propagation”) to complete and your domain to become visible on the Internet. While you’re waiting you have time to take a look at the facilities available from the host’s control panel, install WordPress (one click!), look for and then import a suitable theme, and start building your site (as I outlined in part 2).

Installing a Theme

It’s easy to implement a bespoke theme, with rich customisation features, straight from the dashboard (as I showed in part 1). There are many commercial themes that are feature-rich but still come at a modest, one-off cost. As with WordPress.com, both free and paid themes are available by selecting Appearance -> Themes -> Install Themes. You can also search the WordPress themes directory, maybe visiting providers’ Web sites to get a better feel for what the theme, and the provider, offers.
If you choose to import a free theme from a catalogue site, make sure the source is reputable (such as Woo Themes, Theme Forest or Elegant Themes). Be aware that you wouldn’t be the first to be unwittingly duped into using a free theme that carries hidden links to sites of dubious content or even malware that could turn your Web site into a “spamming machine”.
When you find a theme you like, just download the theme (Zip) file to your PC. From the Appearance option on the dashboard, select Themes -> Install Themes , browse for and select the Zip file you downloaded then press “install” followed by “activate” – it’s really that simple.
A bespoke theme inserts additional site customisation options into the dashboard. These give much more control over the look and feel than a basic theme, which helps you to get the site looking and behaving just how you want. If you pay for a theme you should expect to get comprehensive user guidance that often includes video tutorials, and regular updates as they become available.

Installing Plug-ins

Plug-ins are programmes that extend the functionality of a site. They are really the main reason why you want to go with the self-hosted option. With so many plugins available, many of which are free, your problem is choosing what’s right for you!
There are basically four types of plug-in. The first type provides facilities that are used to enhance a page’s look and feel and extend the functionality (e.g. additional fonts, columns, special buttons, search and contact forms, a Facebook “Like” button, image gallery, etc.). The second type enables a degree of integration with third party services, such as auto-responders for outbound marketing. The third type adds a complete sub-system for the site, examples of which are document management, e-shopping, online diary planner or a private members’ sub-site.  The fourth type extends the dashboard with Webmaster site administration tools that may be as simple as an improved content editor or as sophisticated as automatic content backup or search engine optimisation facilities.
Adding plug-ins is just as easy as installing a theme. From the dashboard “Appearance” menu, select “Install Plugins”. First search for a plug-in that you want; you will be presented with brief descriptions and popularity measures (e.g. number of downloads and users’ assessments). You can also search WordPress.org for plug-ins and/or follow the link to the providers’ Web sites to get more detailed information. When you have identified one that meets your needs, select it then install and activate it.
Most plug-ins, like themes, will add set up options to the dashboard that enable the plug-in to be customised or provide administration facilities necessary to manage an entire sub-system, such an e-shop.

A “Must Have” Plug-in

Until you get a feel for site building and administration I would recommend being very sparing about what you install. They do affect performance. But, worse, they can divert your attention from delivering good content, which should be your first priority. Follow an authoritative blog or two (Lisa Irby, MakeUseOf and ManageWP are my favourites) that will provide you with information about useful additions to your armoury.
But one “must-have” plug-in is JetPack. This provides a number of facilities that come as standard with a WordPress.com site. You will need a WordPress.com account to activate it, even if you don’t intend to use it to set up a site or blog. So this plug-in puts your self-hosted site “on a par” with the facilities available on a WordPress.com site (it does, in fact, offer more facilities!).

The Bottom Line

So there you have it. With a little know-how and without too much work you can put up a £1,000, £2,000 or even a £3,000 Web site for less than £100 – that you can manage and enhance yourself! It’s also based on the most popular content management system, used by the biggest of companies, so it has an entire support industry available if you need it. Don’t forget that there are ways to get help with content if copywriting or creating logos is not your forte.

About

Alan Jackson is a business productivity architect, WinWeb Business Mentor and Green Deal Consortia consulting partner operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter, email me at alan.jackson@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau). Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.

How to Set up Your Micro-business Web Site on a Tight Budget – Part 2

English: WordPress Logo

English: WordPress Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this, the second part of the article “How to Set up Your Micro-business Web Site on a Tight Budget“, I will outline the simple steps you will need to take to get a shiny new WordPress Web site up and running. WordPress comes in two “flavours”, so you will need to appreciate the differences in order to choose which option is best for you.

Vive la Difference!

You have the choice of free Web site hosting at WordPress.com, with a WordPress domain (e.g. mysite.wordpress.com), or register a bespoke domain and install the WordPress software on a commercial web hosting service of your choice. This will cost £2-£10 per month, depending on the plan you choose; WordPress itself is free to install.

Both flavours have the same dashboard for site administration, and WordPress.com site offers all the same facilities except the ability to import third party custom themes or plugins (of which there are some 21,000 in the WordPress catalogue see part 1). There are, however, over 200 free, but customizable, WordPress.com themes, a number of more comprehensive premium themes and a variety of stock widgets to choose from.

Although WordPress.com has some limitations, it’s a little easier to get your Web site online, and it could be entirely free (unlike WordPress.org). So I’ll outline the steps you will need to take to set up a WordPress.com site and talk about the additional steps and costs to put up a site with using a WordPress.org installation in a later post.

Preparation

Before you dive in to building your site, you will need to do some planning and preparation first. As a minimum, I suggest that you:

  • identify one or two simple sites that you would like to emulate,
  • study the site(s) to get a feel for the menus, the layout and type of content of relevant pages (including use of multimedia, such as images and video), the widgets used and the content of  headers and footers,
  • work out what pages you want on your site, and the menu options that will take a visitor to each one,
  • write a draft of each page (remember copying pages from another site is never acceptable and constitutes infringement of copyright),
  • identify a source of multimedia content –  if you don’t already have picture and logo files there are plenty of online catalogues to choose  from (for which there might be a modest cost).

Building a Site on WordPress.com

With your preparation done, all you need to do to get up and running is to follow the steps below. If you need additional help, there are plenty of video tutorials on YouTube.

Register an account

From WordPress.com:

  1. Complete the online registration form,
  2. Activate the site from the email acknowledgement,
  3. Exit from the new starter script – you might as well go straight to the dashboard to manage your new site (mysite.wordpress.com/wp-admin) where you will find plenty of help, including more details of the registration process.

After registration, all the administration options are available from your site’s “dashboard” – this is where you work the magic.

Step 2Choose a Theme

From your new site’s dashboard menu:

  1. Select the “Themes” option from the “Appearance” menu,
  2.  Use the “Feature Filter” option to select a likely-looking theme from the catalogue, based on the characteristics you want, like colour scheme and page layout (you will be offered a mix of free and premium themes),
  3. Preview the theme, check out its “Details” and, if it’s acceptable, “activate” it with a single click! If you change your mind later, it’s not a problem, just find and activate another one.

WordPress provides some dummy content so that you can preview your new site.

Step-3Create the required pages from your drafts

From the dashboard “Pages” menu:

  1. Use the “New Page” option to import your draft content into the inbuilt content editor (remembering to use the “Paste from Word” option to remove any formatting),
  2. Insert any images by using the “Add Media” icon and following the upload instructions,
  3. Add a name for the page.

You may save a draft version and preview a page at any time. When you are satisfied that a page is finished, use the “Publish” button, which makes it available for viewing. You should also remove the WordPress Sample Page – select “Pages”, then “All pages”, hover over the dummy page title and click on “Trash” (illustrated here).

If you’re not much of an author and would like some help with writing copy, you should check out the WinWeb “virtual assistant content writing service.

Step 4Set up the theme options and site settings

You need to set up your site like a conventional Web site rather than as a blog.

  1. From the dashboard “Appearance” menu, select the “Themes” option then the “Customize” button,
  2. Open the section “Site Title & Tagline” and add a title for your site and a “tagline”, both of which will be displayed in the header,
  3. In the “Static Front Page” section “, select the “static page” option and nominate one of the pages as your “Home page”,
  4. Select the “Theme Options” button and choose one of the page layout styles offered by your chosen theme.

Define the navigation menu

From the “Appearance” menu:

  1. Select the “Menus” option and create a new menu,
  2. In the “Pages” section, select the pages you want to become available via the menu,
  3. Arrange the menu and sub-menu options that appear on the right of the window – a simple drag & drop task
  4. Save the menu and review your site by clicking on the site name in the administrator’s banner.

Step 6Include widgets

From the “Appearance” menu:

  1. Select the widgets option,
  2. On the left is listed all the available widgets, on the right are the areas in your selected theme in which you can put widgets – simply drag & drop a widget into a widget area,
  3. For each widget, click on the down arrow in its title to open a short form to complete any setup applicable to the widget.

You are done! Don’t expect your site to look as good as the one you chose to emulate “straight off the bat”.There are many more options you can explore at your leisure, but the above steps, with the defaults, means your site is “good to go”.

It’s easy to add blog posts to the navigation menus. You may also change the appearance of your site at any time, simply by choosing a different theme and changing the settings, as above. All of your content is retained.

Picking a Custom Domain

To look more professional you could pay the $18 pa for your own domain name rather than use the default that has “.wordpress.com” in it. You should try to pick a domain name that is the same as your product or company name or very close. This will tell people exactly what to expect, and if they are looking for this product, they have a better chance of finding your site in searches.

To check that your preferred domain is available, use one of the numerous sites offering a domain name search facility (Google “domain name search”). Just enter the name of the domain and you will be told whether it is free or taken (and the purchase price if you were looking to buy it). You may have to try several names to find one that is not taken; most sites will give you a list of similar names that are available.

In the next post I will describe the additional steps needed to set up a site with the self-hosted version, WordPress.org.

About

Alan Jackson is a business productivity architect, WinWeb Business Mentor and Green Deal Consortia consulting partner operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter, email me at alan.jackson@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau). Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.

 

How to Set up Your Micro-business Web Site on a Tight Budget – Part 1

English: WordPress Logo

English: WordPress Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of all the non-core business concerns perplexing start-up and micro-businesses, Web sites feature high up on the list. The most vexing question is “how can I get a decent Web site built – inexpensively”. Business owners, it seems, are having rather less than satisfactory experiences with free site offerings or paying good money, sometimes several thousand pounds, for a site that falls way short of meeting their expectations. If you recognise these failings, there is a way to set up a professional-looking Web site quickly and easily, that you can enhance with bespoke features and manage yourself, all from under £100 – as I shall explain.

The Value of an Online Presence

Increasingly, small and micro-businesses appreciate that an online presence can increase the chances of potential customers learning about their product range or services. A Web site acts as a virtual shop window for a business, an effective means of showcasing their wares and capabilities. Savvy consumers expect businesses to have a Web site where they can learn about the business and its products and services, find contact information and even purchase items online. Ignoring this channel to customers is, effectively, handing business to your competitors.

Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff

There is certainly no shortage of Web design companies advertising on the Internet, nor of various types of company offering free sites. I dare say that many would do a very good job at a reasonable price and the free site might “fit the bill”. But it’s the almost unlimited choice which is the essence of the problem faced by SMEs. Do you really have the time or inclination to shop around and even then, do you have sufficient knowledge to differentiate a good deal from a “lame duck”? One solution is to “bite the bullet” and build a site yourself – yes, it’s really not as difficult as you might expect! The tool of choice is WordPress – it’s FREE and you don’t have to know any coding.

Why WordPress?

WordPress is committed to serving non-technical users who want to publish on the Internet easily and effectively. This has helped to make it the most popular and fastest growing Web publishing platform; version 3.2 was downloaded half a million times in its first two days. WordPress started life as a free, open source tool for blogging that has flourished and evolved into a comprehensive Web site content management system (CMS). WordPress is currently the most popular CMS in use on the Internet, used by large corporates and small businesses alike – it is used by over 50% of the top 10,000 sites. With that kind of pedigree, not only can you be sure of being in very good company, there’s a thriving community of practice and access to a wealth of guidance and support, both free and for profit.

Just Add Words and Pictures

WordPress enables you to select a “theme” for your site. Themes are what make WordPress so powerful. A theme defines your site’s page layout – where on the page words and pictures (“content”) and “widgets”, such as carousels for pictures and adverts, are displayed. It also defines the site’s look and feel. A theme has specific administration functions that you use to customise the site, for example, to change the logo and message in the banner heading, add images or streaming video, or manage (add or remove) navigation menu options. Free text, page content is added simply by writing or cutting and pasting your copy into a WYSIWYG text editor.

In short, the theme hides all the Web “jiggery-pokery” so there is no need for any HTML knowledge. You just add the content needed to populate the theme and, hey presto, you have a working site within a few minutes (plus, of course, the copywriting time, which you would have to put in anyway)!

Take Your Pick

You can choose from thousands of themes that are entirely free; some are surprisingly feature-rich. WordPress.org itself has over 1600 free themes. Themes are generally designed with a look and feel that’s appropriate to a particular purpose or to appeal to a particular target audience (a hairdresser’s site would tend to look quite different to a plumber’s site or an online magazine site).

So you should pick a theme that matches who and what you are, and what you are trying to achieve. You should also pick one that you will not find too onerous to populate and keep fresh with new content. Don’t pick a theme with lots of features and widgets unless you really need them as it will just increase the amount of time you will need to devote to keeping them populated.

Changing & Extending Your Site

But don’t worry if you want to rebrand or simply get tired of the old look and feel and fancy a change. All the content you have added is safely tucked away in the content database in the “Cloud”. To change the theme all you need to do is find a new theme, upload and activate it, and then spend a few minutes customising it (e.g. adding in your preferred menu options).

Themes vary from the very basic to the ultra-sophisticated. So if you “outgrow” your theme and find you need more sophisticated features and facilities, and/or value the peace of mind of regular upgrades and formal support, you can purchase a “premium theme”, for a once-off cost as little as £30.

It’s also very simple to extend the facilities available with your theme using “plugins“, which do almost anything you can imagine, even adding e-commerce or document management facilities or creating your own company Intranet or Extranet. On WordPress.org you can find over 21,000 free plugins! Again, you could expect to pay £100 or more for the more sophisticated premium plugins. Just pick what you want, download and activate it, it’s really that simple. Some even work “straight out of the box”. Most put an option in the administrators ‘”dashboard” that you use to set up the plugin (i.e. tailor it to your specific requirements).

Summary

A Web site is a great way to promote your small business and to help develop a valuable and enduring relationship with your potential clients, by sharing information and news about your business, your products, and yourself. A Web site can also be used to sell products and to provide after-sales services. In short, a Web site should not be overlooked as a means of maximizing profits for your business.

Now you should have an inkling of how to avoid getting suckered into the straight-jacket of many free Web site offerings, or of paying “over the odds” for a bespoke site that you are locked-in to for content maintenance and future enhancements. It’s really not that difficult to build a professional, high quality site that you can manage yourself and to which you can add valuable features as the need arises – and all on the tightest of budgets.

In my next post I will give you a step-by-step overview that will get your site up and running within a couple of hours.

About

Alan Jackson is a business productivity architect, WinWeb Business Mentor and Green Deal Consortia consulting partner operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter, email me at alan.jackson@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau). Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.

Practical Tips to Make Your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Initiative a Success

Alan Jackson, The Better Business Bureau Ltd.

To many companies, strong and enduring relationships with customers are vital to their business success. Customer relationship management (CRM) software is a toolset that can provide facilities and crucial insights into the behaviour of prospects and customers that will help to improve these relationships. CRM should be considered an essential part of any strategy aiming to lower the cost of customer acquisition and retention, improve productivity, and increase profitability.

But many small businesses are failing short of the return on investment (ROI) they anticipated for their CRM implementation. No CRM system will deliver significant ROI without a clear strategy to guide its implementation and use. In this short article I will offer some practical advice for ensuring that your CRM initiative delivers real value.

CRM Goals

The overall goals of a CRM system are to help find, attract, and win new customers, nurture and retain existing customers, entice former customers to return, and reduce the costs of marketing and of providing customer services. Although CRM software is undoubtedly a significant enabler, it can’t perform miracles, as some business owners seem to think! Just like most other software applications, CRM simply manages the data and streamlines processes that would otherwise be time-consuming, challenging, or repetitive.

CRM applications typically provide automation of sales activities (known as “Sales Force Automation”), such as lead tracking, contact and appointments management, and sales funnel analytics. Also included may be marketing, customer service, and technical support. But if the processes are flawed, inaccurate, vague or just plain broken to begin with, no level of automation or fancy application features will fix things.

So, to see any real benefit from a CRM application, your sales funnel and its metrics, customer relationship strategy and processes must be sound and closely aligned with the mission of the enterprise itself. Only at that point can a CRM software solution be chosen that can closely model your business processes.

Establishing a CRM Strategy and Vision

First you must to review your sales processes, to confirm that all the steps (typically, Prospecting, Preparation, Qualification, Demonstration, Negotiation, Close, and Follow-up) are clear to your sales force, effective and efficient. To really understand the current condition of the relationships between you and your customers you will need answers to a number of fundamental questions that reveal insight into the rapport you have with your customers – ask “what are we doing to …”:

  • make doing business with us a more positive and satisfying experience?
  • improve prospecting?
  • remove the barriers to the conversion of prospects into new customers?
  • encourage customer loyalty to drive repeat sales?
  • increase business insight?

The answers will provide a sound basis from which to derive a clear future state, by changing the question slightly to: “what else can we do to …”.

Your emerging strategy must accommodate the alignment of both people and process with the technology. People need to embrace the system enthusiastically – there will be no benefits if it’s not used. Processes must ultimately be mapped within the system and the technology must be sound, with all the right features in place, the right fit to your business, and the right interactions with other data sources.

Deriving CRM Application Requirements

Armed with a “to-be” strategy based on the simple analysis of the “as-is” condition, you should then be able to establish the business processes you need to deliver the vision.

The best IT requirements tend to flow naturally from well documented, efficient processes that are well understood, effective, and applied consistently by the workforce. Without process clarity and alignment, automation is highly unlikely to produce clear benefits. It’s always a good idea to get some in-service experience of the processes before committing them to software. First establish the best, most effective way of conducting business, document it, and then enshrine the “one best way” into the CRM system. It’s never a good idea to automate without first proving working practices, you may simply end up locking-in poor process.

Packaged CRM

With requirements derived from effective processes you are now in a position to choose a CRM package that will meet your needs. It should offer “made-to-measure” facilities that can be customised to meet your current and future requirements. Avoid “one size fits all” applications that may never be a good fit with your business requirements.

Too often a business will select and implement a terrific software solution, only to struggle to get the staff on board with the new system. Everyone in the business must clearly understand what they are trying to accomplish with the tool and the processes that they need to follow. Even the best CRM system will fail to deliver if the end users aren’t able or willing to use it correctly—or worse yet, if they don’t use it at all.

Increasingly CRM vendors offer subscription-based Web-based tools (Cloud computing and Software as a Service - SaaS), which are accessed using a Web browser. Customers don’t need to purchase and support local hardware. Pay-as-you-go subscriptions mean not having to make a substantial investment in the cost of outright purchase. They usually allow incremental expansion and the user is not locked in to the application. You should seriously consider the option of Cloud vendors to lower the cost and technical barriers to entry.

Beware the vendors that will sell you a software license and walk away. Look for an established vendor that can offer a long-term relationship to ensure ongoing CRM success – WinWeb is a good example. Otherwise your shiny new CRM systems may end up as little more than a management reporting tool, leaving the actual customer experience virtually unchanged and the benefits unrealised.

In Summary

A CRM initiative should be approached as an opportunity to refine and re-engineer processes to improve their clarity and alignment. You should never blindly layer software on top of vague, ill-defined processes and working practices, expecting the software to magically bring order to chaos (see: “A Six-Step Service Improvement Plan to Avoid Costly and Ineffective IT Investment”). You could simply end up “cementing in” many of the ills of the business.

Software is only one component of a CRM initiative’s success. Equally important is the alignment of clearly defined processes with an effective sales funnel that is supported by actionable metrics. Without clear business objectives, process clarity and alignment, even the best CRM software will fail to deliver desired results.

So, if you are embarking on a CRM initiative, you must look beyond a simple checklist of software features to establish a philosophy and approach that works from a business, rather than just a technical, perspective.

About

Alan Jackson is a business productivity architect, WinWeb Business Mentor and Green Deal Consortia consulting partner operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter, email me at alan.jackson@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau). Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.

What Does the Green Deal Mean to Small Businesses – Pipe Dream or Goose that Lays Golden Eggs?

Alan Jackson, The Better Business Bureau Ltd

Communication of the government’s Green Deal initiative, the biggest home energy improvement programme of modern times, has not exactly been a resounding success, so you could be forgiven if it has passed you by so far. But take notice, the government IS pressing ahead and it WILL launch in October this year. The target is to improve the energy efficiency of 14 million homes over 10 years and it is predicted that the supply chain could support 100,000 jobs within five years. This article describes how small businesses can stop the large conglomerates from dominating the market by working together to earn their fair share.

What is the Green Deal?

In a nutshell, under the Green Deal, bill-payers will be able to buy approved energy efficiency improvement measures for their property without having to pay anything up front up. Instead, capital will be made available by “providers”, which recoup their outlay, plus interest, via a charge on the property’s electricity bill. If the customer moves, the charge transfers to the new bill-payer. At the heart of the Green Deal offer is a “golden rule” that estimated savings on bills cannot exceed the cost of the work over the lifetime of the measure.

Britain has some of the oldest, draughtiest and poorly insulated building stock in Europe, leaking heat and wasting precious and expensive energy. A quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions come from the energy we use to heat our homes, and a similar amount from our businesses, industry and workplaces. So we all pay a high price for inefficient use of energy. The Green Deal will revolutionise the energy efficiency of properties, communities and, in due course, businesses by giving consumers an opportunity to make energy efficiency improvements that, otherwise, they may not be able to afford. Millions of owner-occupiers and tenants are set reap the rewards of better energy efficiency from Green Deal funded improvements.

When will the Green Deal Start?

The Green Deal scheme will start on 1st October 2012. Over this summer, secondary legislation and the accreditation and certification framework will be put in place. Savvy Green Deal participants, including Green Deal providers, assessors, and installers, are preparing NOW for the first wave of customers. The Government has pledged to kick-start the programme with a £200 million fund to provide cash-back incentives for these first Green Deal customers.

What Does the Green Deal Mean to Small Traders?

The Green Deal represents a significant opportunity for small enterprises in the energy performance improvement sector to secure new business. Retailers, installers, suppliers, assessors, trainers, and tradespeople will have access to a huge and growing market, with implications for jobs and skills along the supply chain – and across the whole country, with no regional bias.

The Government is very keen to ensure that small companies play an important role in the delivery of Green Deal energy improvement measures and share in the Green Deal market – two thirds of the construction workforce is employed by SMEs. The government are predicting that the supply chain could support 100,000 jobs within five years.

What Must Small Businesses Do?

First of all, sitting back and expecting business to come to you from this new market is not an option. This will simply let the big players “stitch up” the market with their financial “muscle”, using their current preferred suppliers. Energy efficiency improvements made under the Green Deal must be delivered by qualified and accredited tradespeople. So the large companies are already gearing up by training their contractors and obtaining the necessary accreditation.

The way the marketplace, the Green Deal delivery process and the governance framework is structured, in order to represent persuasive and viable competition to the corporates, SMEs must band together. It is only via strategic alliances forged for each Green Deal improvement plan that small business will be able to provide a complete, and competitive, end-to-end service that discriminating householders will find compelling. So, in each region, there must be a pool of accredited participants, a consortium, from which appropriate teams can be put together to deliver each customised package of measures.

How Can I Access a Regional Green Deal Consortium?

Green Deal Consortia Ltd’, based at the Wigan Investment Centre, is setting up a network of regional consortia of Green Deal delivery specialists by coordinating and providing essential support services (e.g. government training funds, accreditation and quality management systems). Each regional consortium will support a pool of advisors, project managers, trainers, ancillary tradesmen and other essential participants. Significantly, each Consortium will have direct access to a pioneer Green Deal Provider, Yorkshire Energy Services, which will provide the essential Green Deal Financing Mechanism needed to deliver a whole house approach across each region.

What Requirements Must I Meet?

To become a regional consortium member you must:

  • Attend a Green Deal Overview to ensure a full understanding of the scheme – £50 a seat to cover overheads.
  • Subscribe to the Green Deal Manager to fast track your PAS 2030 certification (except support tradespeople).
  • Subscribe to the Consortium, priced according to activity, to access a complete support framework, tendering skills, Quality System, invoice management, Green Deal Provider link.

What’s in it for Me?

  • A viable and credible foothold in the lucrative new market.
  • Access to Green Deal (and Energy Company Obligation) referrals.
  • Access to shared skills and experiences.
  • Back-up support from a leading industry Green Deal expert.
  • Up to date information on Green Deal, straight from Whitehall.
  • Opportunities to expand into other regional consortia.

What Should I Do Next?

So, if you are, or have designs to be, a retailer, installer, supplier, assessor, or ancillary tradesperson (e.g. painter, decorator, roofer, etc.) in the energy efficiency improvement sector, and want to secure your fair share of the emerging Green Deal market, apply NOW to become a consortium member by using the contact form: http://greendealconsortia.co.uk/contact-us.php.

If your market is in the East Midlands you should contact Alan Jackson by email or Skype (“the betterbusinessbureau”), who is establishing a consortium in the region.

Cloud Computing – a Real Boon for Small Businesses or “Cloud Cuckoo Land”?

Alan Jackson, The Better Business Bureau Ltd.

You may have heard of “the Cloud” but many small business owners don’t really understand what it is so can’t judge whether it could be valuable to their business. Is it just the latest fad or the preserve of the large corporations? In this short article I will briefly describe what is meant by Cloud Computing and highlight the benefits to SMEs, which will demonstrate that “the Cloud” is definitely not “cuckoo land”.

What is Cloud Computing?

Cloud Computing is simply a means of accessing and running software over the Internet (the Cloud is so called because the Internet is often depicted as a cloud). It’s more than likely that you have already used publicly available Cloud applications, such as Hotmail and SkyDrive, without realising.

Traditionally, you buy application software on a disc, or download it from a Web-based supplier, install it on your company’s servers then look after it yourself (ensure that it is regularly backed up and updated as new versions become available). But with Cloud Computing, you just access and run your applications directly over the Internet through your favourite Web browser.

A “provider” hosts the software on their online servers, which are kept in a physically secure location with full maintenance staffing and built-in resilience against outages to deliver 24×7 availability. Software maintenance, updates and the all-important back-up of your business-critical data are carried out by the provider. Cloud providers must comply with various safe-guarding regulations to keep your data safe and secure.

What do Cloud Providers Bring to the Table?

Cloud providers are becoming increasingly significant for small businesses. Typified by the excellent WinWeb service, they offer not only remote servers but also a large and growing suite of general purpose applications, such as cashbook, accounts, online bookings and customer database software, that share a common user interface. But more than that, because the applications are managed by a single provider, they can share data seamlessly, without a massive investment in integration software (so-called “middleware”) that is generally needed to “stitch together” applications from different vendors.

What are the Benefits of Cloud Computing to Small Businesses?

There is a number of very significant benefits for small businesses taking advantage of Cloud Computing:

  • There is no initial capital outlay – payments for using the software are made generally on a monthly fee basis, which means better cash flow management over the year.
  • All software is updated automatically, at no extra cost – leaving you to concentrate on your business with no worries about whether your IT is keeping up with the latest facilities.
  • All data is backed-up automatically - no matter what kind of disaster happens locally, strikes, floods and the like, your business systems remain fully operational.
  • Remote support and maintenance means you don’t need a whole department to run your IT equipment and software.
  • Cloud software (“Cloudware”) runs on any platform that supports a Web browser e.g. Macs, PCs, Tablets (iPads, etc.), and also on mobile phones.
  • The user interface is familiar and consistent – productivity remains the same whether in the office, tele-working or on the road.
  • Your business services and data may be accessed from anywhere and at any time, night and day - no need to provide expensive, out-of-hours cover or accept the risk business interruption. You are always “open for business” and can take advantage of any business opportunity or deal with enquiries and complaints right away – providing you the means to offer an improved, fast and reliable service, even during holidays or over the weekend.
  • The ability to share data between different business-critical applications, seamlessly, puts your small business on the same footing as your large competitors, in terms of delivering a joined-up service offering without tedious, manual input.

On a cautionary note, before making any investment in IT, you should make sure that It will deliver appropriate and effective solutions (see: “A Six-Step Service Improvement Plan to Avoid Costly and Ineffective IT Investment“).

In Summary

For small businesses, Cloud computing offers real advantages in management of costs, convenience and flexibility over traditional, installed software. The ability to add additional functions as the business grows, at a low and incremental monthly cost, and to share data between applications is a real boon. Cloud computing is definitely not to be confused with “Cloud Cuckoo Land” and seems likely to become a significant contributor to the productivity and service capability of forward-thinking small businesses in the near future, helping them to develop and  grow.

About

Alan Jackson is a business productivity architect operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter, email me at alan.jackson@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinesBureau). Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.

Extranets for SMEs

This article is the second of two articles discussing Intranets and Extranets for small businesses (see “Intranets for SMEs”, AE Jackson, 2012). In this instalment I will be answering the questions:

  • What is an Extranet?
  • What are the Benefits of an Extranet?
  • How are the Benefits of an Extranet Delivered?
  • How do we Expose Back-office Resources with an Extranet?

What is an Extranet?

An Extranet is a private Web site that that has been extended to include trusted associates of an organisation. It is usually a part of a company Intranet to which authorised outsiders are allowed access. So, to its users, it looks like any public Web site, uses the same network protocols, has the same underlying structure for presenting content and running applications and is accessed using the same Web browsers with the same navigation features.

Internet technology provides the means to share data, applications and company information privately with suppliers, partners, customers, vendors and other external users. Client pages and their special information are password protected so both the organisation’s and the client’s proprietary information is safe from external viewers.

What are the Benefits of an Extranet?

In addition to the benefits of an Intranet (see “Intranets for SMEs”, AE Jackson, 2012), the additional benefits of using an Extranet are typically:

  • better integrated supply chains - through the use of online ordering, order tracking and inventory management
  • reduced operational costs - by making reports, manuals and technical documentation available online to trading partners, clients and customers
  • more effective collaboration - between business partners and external members of a project team by enabling them to work online on common documentation
  • improved business relationships - with key trading partners because of the close collaborative working that Extranets support
  • improved customer service - by giving customers direct access to information with a self-service “one-stop-shop” that enables them to resolve their own queries
  • flexible working – resources are available to conduct business with trading partners, sub-contractors and the public 24 hours a day from any remote location

How are the Benefits of an Extranet Delivered?

Reports and other information may be published to an Extranet to circumvent the need for emailing or physical delivery of documents to clients or suppliers, freeing up staff for more valuable work. The recipient simply logs on to the Extranet from where they view and download their documents, which may be individually password-protected. Document creation, revisions and views are all logged to provide an audit trail for compliance purposes.

A notable facility of an Extranet is the ability to hold conferences online, at which documents may be shared in real-time. All that is needed is conferencing software and, for videoconferencing, a Webcam. Conference calls (using VOIP) and videoconferencing can replace face-to-face meetings and eliminate the significant time and cost of travelling. Any documentation required can be made available on the Extranet from where the participants can view, edit, download and print it. So documents can be amended, designs can be finalised, agreements put in place, policies revised and plans established and authorised without a laborious paper trail or “email ping pong”. Online conferencing enables you work closely with your clients and service suppliers even when you cannot physically meet with them.

Extranets offer trading companies (B2B) an inexpensive and efficient way to connect with their trading partners. Retailers, wholesalers and resellers may access pertinent information about pricing and discounts, specifications, product features and manuals or resources for salesmen and pre-sales representatives. The ability to facilitate trading activities enhances business relationships and helps to integrate a business firmly within their supply chain. Partners may have access to online ordering, order tracking and vendor-managed inventory, just about all the operational information they need to do business 24 hours a day.

For B2C service operations, in which contacts with clients are significant, an Extranet can partially substitute for a contact centre, helping to streamline the way the organisation communicates with the public. A self-service, “one-stop shop”, can be provided for clients to all the information and facilities necessary to meet service enquiries and complaints, to trigger service requests, schedule jobs and visits or update case notes.

A remote-working facility for tradesmen and sub-contractors can save money by reducing administrative overheads in the back-office. Typically, tradesmen and case-workers in the field produce handwritten notes following appointments and hand these over at the end of the day to clerical staff who input the data into various systems manually. This process adds no value. Worse, transcription errors can be introduced and there’s a time delay between making notes and entering the information, during which data can easily be lost. All too often incomplete or illegible data is supplied, which means the originator must be “chased” to obtain the missing information.

Through integration with mobile devices, field operatives and case workers can reschedule, open, close and update the progress of jobs, and generate work orders in the field. The ability to update existing central applications remotely, in real-time, without paper form-filling or data re-keying by clerical staff, saves considerable time and cost, and eliminates errors. Service delivery can be transformed by reducing lead time, improving responsiveness and reducing failure demand.

How do we Expose Back-office Resources with an Extranet?

Back-office applications, documents and data often need to be “exposed” to Extranet partners during a workflow process or directly from specific Web pages. Large companies have typically used Remote Procedure Calls via each system’s Application Programming Interface (API) to expose these resources. But the programming required is complex and generally beyond the capability of SMEs. Messaging middleware is being used increasingly (sending XML messages between applications over a Service Oriented Architecture). Whilst this reduces the complexity of developing integration solutions, it does, nevertheless, still require considerable technical competence to deploy.

Relatively recently an old, inexpensive technology (pejoratively known as “screen scraping”) has “come of age”. It is set to become increasingly valued by organisations that need to deliver integrated systems via an Extranet, inexpensively.  Now termed “Web scraping”, the technology, which takes advantage of Web page mark-up, is ideal for organisations that do not have the considerable development and support resources required for more conventional system integration. The solution is based on “robots” that are configured to simulate human browsing of applications via their user interface. The technology is inexpensive and, crucially, setting up the robots does not require any special technical expertise once the workflow processes have been optimised.

Think of the robots used in car body assembly. To set up a robot an engineer positions the robot arm manually to make the required welds on a test piece. The robot “remembers” every move.  Once “programmed”, no further human intervention is necessary to build further examples. But the construction process itself must first have been designed specifically to be amenable to robot construction (e.g. procedures that a robot cannot perform are replaced or eliminated).

Notable vendors in this field are NDL and Blue Prism. The former is more oriented to SMEs, since it does not have the extensive security and governance features of the latter, which is reflected in the price tag and support requirements. Blue Prism’s software is aimed principally at the very large enterprises. NDL also has a particularly nice mobile integration solution, which provides a relatively inexpensive way of extending your back-office application data out to your remote workers.

Summary

An Extranet enables external users, with the appropriate access privileges, to access your organisation’s intellectual property and participate in business processes anywhere and at any time. You are always “open for business” and can take advantage of any business opportunity or deal with enquiries and complaints right away. Organisations with an Extranet free themselves from geographical boundaries and the constraint of office hours.

Self-service facilities for customers mean that fast and reliable customer service is available to them, even during holidays or over the weekend. Read/write access in the field to data and applications held centrally drives efficiencies, cuts costs, reduces travel and enhances customer experience.

The bottom line is that a combined Intranet (as described in a previous post) and Extranet will add real value and a competitive edge to any organisation, extending its “reach” and becoming an essential part of any operating model.  Crucially, the cost of owning the technology has fallen to a level that even smaller businesses can afford.

About

Alan Jackson is a small business development architect operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter or email me at alan.jackson@bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk. Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.

Intranets for SMEs

Alan Jackson, The Better Business Bureau Ltd.

The other week I was talking informally, over a pint, to a board member of a relatively small, but rather efficient and progressive housing association. He was interested in opportunities to improve their productivity and to further enhance their reputation for quality with their tenants. Our discussions turned to Intranets and Extranets, which, from my experience, I quickly recognised would realise many of their aims and solve a lot of their problems.

“You’ll have to write all this down for me” he requested when we’d finished “as my research on the Web has thrown up a lot of material, which is too detailed, not sufficiently specific or proprietary – I need a more balanced and independent assessment of the opportunities and benefits”.

This article , based on my response, sets out to answer the following questions with just enough detail for a business owner or SME leadership team to be able to judge whether an Intranet could add value to their organisation. It is the first of two instalments, the second will cover Extranets:

  1. What is an Intranet?
  2. What can we Find on Intranets?
  3. What are the Benefits of a Company Intranet?
  4. What are the Key Components of an Intranet?
  5. What are the Technical Options for Deploying an Intranet?

What is an Intranet?

An Intranet is a private Web site owned by an organization and operated exclusively for the benefit of its staff. Usually indistinguishable from an Internet Web site, an Intranet uses the same network protocols as the Internet, has the same underlying structure for presenting content and running applications and is accessed using the same Web browsers with the same navigation features. It would normally be connected to the Internet but protected from unauthorised access by a firewall, a computer system dedicated to restricting access to network services. Users typically log in from the organization’s public Web site.

Intranets can make applications, workflow and information accessible to everyone in an organisation at any time of day or night. These include documents, data and other company assets that are crucial for the daily operations of a business but of no use to the general public. With these types of content available via the company Intranet, workers have access not only from their desk, but also from a variety of locations and mobile devices, such tablet PCs and mobile phones.

What can we Find on Intranets?

Just about any service and type of content can be delivered via an Intranet. The following list is fairly typical of the main types of information and business facilities that should be considered for a new Intranet site.

  • corporate - mission statements, press coverage, branding guidelines, business plans, staff newsletters, audit trails to support quality and compliance
  • financial - annual reports and performance
  • administrative - calendars, meeting room bookings, requisitions and ordering, visitor bookings, organization charts, document templates, workflow automation
  • IT - help desk support, virus alerts, tips on dealing with problems with hardware, software and networks, policies on corporate use of email and internet access, online training courses, streamlined data transfer between front and back-office systems
  • marketing - competitor intelligence, links to competitor Web sites, corporate brochures, latest marketing and promotional initiatives, press releases, presentations
  • sales – client and contact lists, sales figures
  • customer services – FAQ knowledge base,single-point access to corporate databases and business information systems via a familiar and intuitive user interface
  • human resources - new vacancies, staff policies and procedures manuals, appraisal procedures and schedules, expenses forms, annual leave requests, staff discount schemes, company travel request, emergency procedures, health and safety guidelines, community project information
  • projects & operations – access toworkflow tasks, project status reports, team contact information, project management information, project documents, time and expense reporting, risks and issues logs, file-sharing, chat-room and online conferencing,
  • external information resources - route planning and mapping sites, industry organisations, research sites, weather and travel reports, news feeds and search engines

What are the Benefits of a Company Intranet?

An Intranet is first and foremost a powerful communication tool for creating a working environment with a corporate identity in which information is created and distributed, important knowledge is shared, and business processes and bespoke applications improve efficiency. Through interactive tools and content that promote idea-sharing, an Intranet lowers the barriers to collaborative working, so that people start to co-operate more closely together. They engage various groups within a business by providing useful and interesting content, vital operational information that is valid and timely, and access to functionality that enables them to do the job at hand.

An Intranet increases the flexibility of a small business by enabling staff to work from almost any location simply by using a Web browser, including their home, customer sites and on the move via a mobile device. With company data, systems and email always at their fingertips, Intranets provide a common knowledge base for individuals and teams in the organization to make them more productive. Intranets can bestow huge competitive advantage to the organisations that embrace them.

The main benefits of an Intranet, in brief, are:

  • better communication of corporate information – knowledge resources, in the form of documents, presentations, images, videos, etc. created locally, then stored and managed centrally, can be accessed at any time and almost any place by authorised users
  • sharing of tacit knowledge and best practice – exchange of information between virtual communities, knowledge and ideas to stimulate collaborative working within and between work groups
  • improved employee productivity – easy and quick access by front-office staff to back-office operational content and applications, reduction of non-value-adding, clerical tasks, such as searching for documents, form-filling, and data re-keying
  • improved access to corporate systems – corporate databases and business information systems are delivered via a common user interface that is both familiar and intuitive
  • enhanced customer service – customer service staff with instant access to accurate and consistent information from back-office applications are able to provide a much improved level of customer service
  • reduction in paperwork – forms can be accessed and completed on the desktop, forwarded as appropriate for approval, and back-office systems updated with no paperwork changing hands or manual re-keying of data, and with the benefit of an audit trail
  • improved governance and compliance – policies and procedures can be created, viewed, maintained and selectively distributed to the appropriate departments, all activity being logged. Continue reading ‘Intranets for SMEs’

See and Be Seen – Visualizing Office Processes

Alan Jackson, April 2012, The Better Business Bureau Ltd.

Even small businesses operate many operational and administrative processes and have business “to-do” lists with tasks ranging from the mundane (e.g. order more stationery) to strategically important business development activities that are really full-blown projects (e.g. introduce new product, implement marketing campaign).

Efficient management of a business means sufficient monitoring of all these processes to keep them operating at peak efficiency. And the key to this is having at our finger tips accurate and timely management information that answers the following questions:

  • How are we doing now?
  • What progress have we made?
  • What must we do next…
    …under normal circumstances (everything is under control)?
    …if the circumstances are abnormal (something is out of control)?

But to understand how well the work is being progressed, you first need to be able to “see” it. Visualizing the work enables you to better analyze, organize and then implement it effectively.

Visual Management

In manufacturing, process anomalies are generally easy to see, as they take the form of excessive piles of scrap, sub-components, partly finished goods and finished goods inventory. But in office processes, problems leading to excessive work in progress are not nearly so immediately apparent because work in progress and finished “goods” are intangible.

“Visual management” is a technique that can provide all the decision-support information needed to keep the work flowing smoothly, by making the queue of work and the work in progress visible, to everyone. This is the basis of a “pull” production system in which there are limits on the amount of work that can be in the queue, and explicit rules to follow when the limits are reached or exceeded. The beauty of visual management doesn’t necessarily rely on computerised monitoring systems to work.

We see many examples of highly effective visual management systems all around us. Traffic lights effectively manage the flow of traffic at a busy junction, keeping the cars flowing and avoiding collisions. The colour of the fuel hoses at a service station – black for diesel, green for unleaded petrol – helps to manage the flow of cars refuelling. The visual cues mean we do not need to drive past every pump to read the information in order to locate one dispensing the correct type of fuel. We can simply glance from a distance at and drive directly to the correct one.

Visualizing Work in Progress

Workers performing routine office processes tend to make their own decisions on what needs to be worked on next. These decisions are often made for their own convenience rather than what is best for the overall process, most often because they know no better. Visual management provides the missing information needed to get people working in concert, rather than as individuals, by enabling systematic work prioritization and scheduling, which is the basis of a proper “business system”. It‘s the difference between a group of musicians each playing for themselves and an orchestra playing under the guidance of a conductor.

A solution to making work queues visible may be as simple as updating a couple of numbers on a white board within the workplace every hour. It may be necessary to make a group or an individual’s “in-tray” visible, perhaps using an electronic “dashboard”.

The choice of visualization mechanism depends on two factors, proximity and information complexity.  People working in close proximity with simple information requirements may use something as simple as organized and colour-coded in-trays or folders, as shown below.

  Each tray is an intra-day checking time (say 1 hr). Each folder has enough work for 1 person in 1 hr.  Sufficient work is placed in each folder at the start of the shift. By comparing the tray’s status to the actual time, the Team Leader can see if the team is on track.

If people are working further way, but still in line of sight, white boards are excellent. If the information is too complex to represent easily on a board or there is no line of sight, then some form of computerised dashboards is the only feasible solution.

Providing Feedback Information

Short Duration Processes

Feedback and visibility of performance of repetitive, short-duration, transactional processes or sub-processes (up to a few hours duration) can be maintained on “Pitch Boards” by workers themselves. These simply display actual versus expected throughput. A typical format for such a “short interval control” board is shown left and below. It clearly displays the goals by the hour (i.e. the “pitch”), dictated by available capacity, and how well a person or team of people are doing in meeting the goals.

Note the importance of comments for any hour when the goal was not met.  A periodic review of the board will help to identify recurring problems that must be addressed to assure performance in the future.  Colours may be used to signify when variability is within a normal range or approaching a condition that requires some special intervention.

Complex, Longer Duration Processes

Processes that run over several days, weeks or even months, with numerous sub-processes, such as a marketing & sales pipeline or a HR maternity leave process, can be visualized and managed according to key milestones on a “Process Board” (Click here for examples from IT operations, development and sales).  A simple example of a special offer publication and distribution process is shown below.

These Boards mostly conform to the general model: “to-do”, “in progress” and “done”. The “in progress” category is normally divided up into the different milestones that a job passes while it is “work in progress” (e.g. “design”, “build”, “test” for software development). Due dates are posted when the process starts. Green means on schedule, yellow means that the due date is in jeopardy, and red means that the date will be or has been missed.

Problems must be addressed in a timely fashion so an “escalation” process may be appropriate.  The escalation process triggers others – possibly higher level management – to get involved and help to complete the follow-up action. Jobs under “remedial action” should be included on the board.

Transactional Processes

Processes that involve a job of work being passed between a number of workers, each one performing a short, discrete task that adds specific value, may be visualised by either of the mechanisms outlined above. The shorter the duration of the process, the more likely that the best solution is a pitch board.

Electronic Visualization

There are two basic types of tool for visualising processes. Workflow tools, which are primarily for orchestrating transactional processes, also provide a “dashboard” view of work in progress (described in a previous article). Kanban Process Boards simulate process whiteboards, as shown above (Kanban is a system for visualizing work and helping it to flow, so reducing waste, and maximizing customer value). Although a relatively informal mechanism, Kanban Process Boards can be highly effective. Unlike a workflow tool that automatically moves tasks to a downstream worker, a Kanban Process Board relies on users moving electronic “sticky notes” on a virtual whiteboard as each milestone is reached. Dashboard facilities provide a summary view of work in progress.

Key Functionality of an Electronic Kanban Process Board

A good Kanban tool typically offers the following functionality:

  • Flexible, simple and intuitive workflow editor for defining and building a visual model of any process board including:
    • A “drag and drop”, Web browser user interface that resemble a real whiteboard
    • Process milestone column and sub-column definition
    • Horizontal “swim lanes” for different types of work that follow the same process
  • Work in progress limits
  • Job completion archive
  • Search and filtering of jobs
  • Customizable Kanban card templates, including colours to denote different job types, fields such as free text, dropdown with options, date picker, etc.
  • Definition of tasks with comprehensive descriptive properties, such as task size, links, comments, due dates and priorities
  • Task history
  • Real-time updates with e-mail notification
  • User and group account management with account access privileges and sharing of folders, boards and online documents with team members
  • To-do list creation
  • Assignment of tasks to team members
  • Dashboard presentation of metrics, including cumulative flow diagrams to identify bottlenecks, lead and cycle time reports, breakdown charts for a quick insight into project status, statistical process control charts to reveal to variability
  • Create, edit and share documents
  • Import/export of data
  • An Application Programmers Interface for integration with external applications

Value for Money

Kanban Process Boards are surprisingly inexpensive and represent tremendous value for money. It costs typically just a few pounds a month for one that runs “in the Cloud” (i.e. over the Internet), which means there is no installed software or local servers to maintain. The cost benefit and ROI can be enormous. Click here for a list of 15 Kanban tools. Kanbanize.com provides theirs free of charge, so what better place to start?

Summary

“Visual management” is an effective, real-time approach to managing on-going support and operational processes, and project “to-do” lists. With a visual decision support system in place, anyone can tell at a glance how a process or project is running and what actions should be taken to keep things operating smoothly. Visual management helps to take monitoring out of the realms of individual experience, “gut feeling”, tacit knowledge and pure chance, and puts decision-making into the hands of the team.

About

Alan Jackson is a business productivity architect operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter or email me at alan.jackson@bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk. Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.

Workflow Demystified

Alan Jackson, The Better Business Bureau Ltd.

A workflow is a sequence of steps through which a job of work passes to produce an outcome of specific value to a business. A workflow definition captures what happens at each step of a transactional process, who is responsible for each action, and how long that action can take. Automated workflow tools are designed to replace paper-based processes, which can be slow and enacted inconsistently, with equivalent online processes, which are far more efficient.

Think of all the routine activities undertaken in your company’s back office. Many of them must follow a specific sequence of tasks, require collaboration with co-workers or authorization from management, involve forms, data and documentation, and have time-sensitive deadlines. Sometimes steps run sequentially (one after another), or simultaneously (in parallel). A workflow is triggered by particular occurrence (e.g. a customer calls in an order) or a condition (e.g. a stock-out). The flow may change, based on user decisions, conditions encountered (e.g.  a due-date breach) or company policy (e.g. authorization required over a prescribed cash value). Your company might have scores of these processes going on at the same time.

Mastering the management of workflow processes provides systemization of a business that helps to maximize organizational performance and assure consistency of quality and of conformance to a “one best way”. Workflows become a focus for identifying, prioritizing, and executing business improvement opportunities, enabling businesses to become more “agile” – which mean they are able to adapt quickly in response to the need to change – leading to higher strategic and financial returns (see: A More Profitable Business in Eight Steps by Blueprinting).

Think of a workflow application as a combination of to-do list and virtual project manager. But also imagine a managed to-do list that:

  • can independently monitor and track the work in progress for your entire company,
  • is smart enough to generate and schedule downstream to-do tasks automatically as one is completed,
  • manages the documents and data associated with each task throughout the process,
  • applies due-dates, company policies and business rules systematically.

So you can begin to see how some companies consider automated workflow to be business-critical.

Functionality

A good workflow tool typically offers the following functionality:

  • An e-form builder to create online forms in a matter of minutes with multiple field elements, such as text boxes, drop downs, check boxes, radio buttons, date selectors and file selection and upload, and input validation
  • An intuitive “drag and drop” interface, requiring relatively little technical knowledge, to map both simple and complex multi-stage processes and manage sub-processes
  • Easy configuration of the rules needed to take a process down a different pathway based on the choices made and data entered by the “submitter” of a form
  • Delivery of customised email messages for alerting and monitoring purposes at completion of workflow tasks
  • Manual intervention into a workflow to accommodate special conditions
  • Read and write access to data held in database applications that support the workflow
  • A task list unique to each user that shows forms waiting to be reviewed and processed through the workflow and forms recently submitted to current workflows
  • A process management dashboard to monitor SLAs and to visualise, both at the enterprise and the user level, all work in progress
  • Recording of every process lifecycle to provide full, forensic auditing
  • Security permissions applied to online forms and workflows so that only prescribed users and user groups can access, submit and process through the different stages of a workflow

Workflow applications automatically route work packages, each represented by a sequence of steps and associated documentation and other electronic resources, to the relevant participant and enable management to measure and monitor progress. Workflow automation delivers significantly improved operational efficiency, process visibility and accountability.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope it provides you with a better insight into the role workflow automation for making your business more productive and more profitable. If you would like to learn more about productivity improvement for small businesses, please visit my Web site at www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk.

Feel free to contact me (alan@b4bb.co.uk) if you have any questions or comments. I will even do my best to provide advice if you are struggling with a process efficiency problem!


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Alan Jackson

  • Processes are the building blocks of your company. The better your processes perform, the better your company will perform #systemsthinking 1 day ago
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  • Forms and checklists are an effective way to systemise a process, adding structure & guiding staff performance of tasks #systemsthinking 4 days ago
  • HMRC REQUIRES millions of firms to submit year-end reports electronically. What happens? The system crashes ... Why am I not surprised? 5 days ago

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