The IT revolution of the past three decades has impacted on every business of every size. It has given rise to enormous benefits and changes, some of which are understood better than others.
Millions of small-to-medium sized businesses have had no choice other than to entrust one or more areas of their activity to a poorly understood electronic medium and the technicians who run it.
IT has also created some widely held misconceptions. In SME business circles, for example, it is generally held that software development is the preserve of large, liquid, technologically sophisticated organisations. This argument is reasonably well founded. Writing a major piece of computer software can be complex, tedious, time-consuming and frustrating; that is to say, expensive.
Ignorance is bliss?
Lets face it, most people in business can just about manage to plug in a computer but couldnt write a line of code to make their own doorbell ring! They are often in awe of the global IT giants. Many privately admit to feeling uncomfortable putting their business destinies in the hands of outside IT experts.
All businesses operate on the same basic financial model and there are a plethora of systems capable of managing the obvious. However, each sector and business is idiosyncratic to some degree. Bespoke software written to accommodate these differences and idiosyncrasies can often smooth operations, reduce costs, relieve tedium or improve the quality of customer relationships.
Why then, are so many owner-mangers and SME directors reluctant to look into the potential benefits of using bespoke software? Because it means moving out of their comfort zone, perhaps, or because they are afraid of snowballing costs, disruption and downtime during commissioning and the eventual possible fragility in their system? No one wants to become dependent on an externally operated management tool that is perhaps temperamental, expensive to maintain and beyond his or her personal control.
These are just more widely held misconceptions, according to Michael Hawthornthwaite, MD of Manchester-based software developer, Acid Computer Services. The reality is that most businesses could (a) afford and (b) benefit from, greater use of specialised computer software. Writing code to accommodate a function specific to a specialised business might cost as little as 2-10,000, with commensurate year-upon-year efficiency gains in multiples of the initial outlay. Simply updating an off-the-shelf package to better reflect current practice or market conditions can have a similarly positive effect.
There are lots of proprietary (generic) time management systems on the market says Michael, but with flexitime working, unique shift patterns and variable pay rates it often pays to have your own demand or site specific software written. You cant put a price on smooth-running staff time-control and accurate pay for overtime worked. Thats the sort of low-cost, high-impact software that we produce. It earns its keep from day one and keeps on paying back the investment every time a potential manning crisis is averted.
In businesses and practices that rely on an appointment system, bespoke software can almost invariably improve efficiency and fee generation.
Hawthornthwaite also quotes Customer Relationship Management (CRM) as a prime area in which enhanced or advanced software can produce easily quantifiable benefits on the bottom line. Relatively simple customer tracking, monitoring and prompting software can identify behaviour that indicates either potential for a problem to arise - that requires immediate intervention - or an unforeseen opportunity to cross sell or re-sell.
People are forgetful explains Michael, computers can be programmed not to be.
Any cyclic business with order/delivery gaps, periodic obsolescence or extended delivery times is likely to have its performance enhanced by the introduction of a CRM system. It will need to be bespoke to match the precise needs of the customers of the business in question. Such systems also create a belief that the business in questions is on the ball; more caring and concerned; more interested, in the minds of its customers.
Simply growing or updating the customer base can pay big dividends. Software modifications can be productive in any business where it makes sense to re-trawl the customer base or revisit the existing customer base with marketing offers such as discounts, recommends or product variations/upgrades.
Acids most frequently requested bespoke software briefs are in the area of staff control and management, internal/external communications, human relations and personnel development, official compliance and corporate governance.
It is usual for bespoke software developers to conduct an audit of their potential customers existing systems and organisational methods before making and costing-out specific proposals.
Dealing with issues of the systems reliability, security and durability at this stage is also key to achieving long term benefits. Its essential to build up a degree of trust with the customer, says Hawthornthwaite. Without transparency, sensitivity to the customers overriding priorities and a frank approach to the matter costs, progress will be slow.
He contends that many businesses are unwittingly missing a trick by clinging to branded off-the-shelf software packages that might have served them well enough in the past but which have become inefficient or outdated.
There is a strong case for re-visiting the question of choosing the most appropriate software for your business every two-to-three years. In an area of activity where technology leaps ahead relentlessly the question of falling behind the competition should never be far from directors mind.
Increasingly, the answer lies by thinking outside the generic box. In these times, having bespoke software written that is precisely specific to your business needs has become as matter-of-fact, and affordable, as ordering a new car or new carpets for the office or showroom.