W100: 5 ways to tame technology

Written by Chris Atchison

Ask a group of successful entrepreneurs to talk about their businesses and you could be in for a very long conversation. Ask the same CEOs how they manage technology, and you could be in for the opposite: a very long silence.

To varying degrees, every business — from high-tech manufacturers to low-tech retailers — needs some combination of software and hardware to operate. Those who maximize their return on technological investments by making smart, strategic purchases are often the most profitable. But how do you make those key decisions if, like most entrepreneurs, your technological expertise stops at opening e-mail attachments?

Sorting through the barrage of emerging tech tools is one of the greatest barriers to making the right decisions about applying technology within your business. And with pressure mounting in this slowing economy to deliver the same services at lower prices, every dollar wasted on the wrong hardware or software could have a lasting impact.

It’s the reason why managing technology is far more complex than merely handing off duties to key personnel. Business owners need to educate themselves by researching the latest and greatest high-tech toys in their industry. They have to know which key staff to include in the decision-making process, make a sound business case for each purchase and implement those new tools without interrupting business.

Impossible? Far from it. As Canada’s Top Women Entrepreneurs prove, you can harness technology to great effect by approaching the problem — or, rather, the opportunity — strategically.

Here are five of the best technology-management practices of companies from the 2008 PROFIT W100.

Follow the pack

Over the course of 22 years in the business of staging events from corporate dinners to lavish weddings, Debra Lykkemark has proudly catered to her customers’ every need. But despite the steady growth of her Vancouver-based catering firm Culinary Capers Catering Inc. (No. 63 on this year’s PROFIT W100 ranking), the entrepreneur saw a storm brewing on the horizon: in an industry destined to embrace automation, her firm was a painfully low-tech player.

Culinary Capers fell behind the technology curve early in this decade. Supply, labour and general budget management were becoming increasingly complex as the company grew, and neither Lykkemark, now 51, nor her senior staffers had the background to design an efficient technological solution to the problem. To make matters worse, she lacked the knowledge to ask the questions that could lead to the development of a sound technology strategy. If the company’s practices and infrastructure weren’t modernized, Lykkemark feared, Culinary Capers would lose some of its hard-won market share to competitors that were ready and able to adopt the best new technology tools.

To overcome the challenge, Lykkemark and two key staffers began by researching catering software packages used by other catering firms across North America. To know how to query slick vendors pitching their wares, Lykkemark picked the brains of her peers (none of whom were direct competitors) and did some comparison shopping. “We did a survey of people to find out how big their company was, what part of the software they were using — whether it was the whole program or just portions of it — and challenges they had with the software,” she explains. Lykkemark used that information to create a set of questions to help choose the package that would best suit her company’s needs.

She eventually found an all-in-one catering software produced by Gaithersburg, Md.-based hospitality software developer Synergy International. The program streamlined her business from event booking down to recipe management. Culinary Capers, originally run by five employees, grew to 35 full-time and 100 part-time staffers around the time Synergy was implemented — and it has since doubled in size, with no signs of slowing down.

Know what you want — and how to ask for it

While many CEOs rely on staff to help make their tech decisions, understanding exactly what to look for when hiring an IT manager or an outside IT firm — and, more specifically, what questions to ask of them — are crucial challenges.

Cynthia Richards first saw the necessity in hiring an IT services firm to support the growth of her event management and consulting firm about five years ago. Event Spectrum Inc. (No. 62) had grown from two employees in 1997 to 11 in 2002, business with clients around the world was moving at a faster pace than ever and Richards was in need of someone who could help her manage a growing database of client information. Most important, she needed professional help with formulating a tech strategy to keep her company competitive as it grew. Because work with another tech services company in the past had been a waste of time, Richards had a much better understanding of what not to look for in an IT firm. But knowing exactly what she needed to hear from a tech head was still a challenge.

When Richards sat down with her controller and VP of operations to determine the company’s tech needs, they analyzed its day-to-day activities. They then prepared a list of questions to test the ability of tech service providers to fulfill their core requirements: scalability, accessibility and rapid response time. Event Spectrum’s employees often work in different time zones around the world and require fast, reliable tech support. Slow service wasn’t an option.

Believing that referrals would be most helpful in finding a tech company with experience in her industry, Richards put the word out among her industry contacts that she was in search of IT assistance. Richards eventually found a firm through a recommendation from a colleague at a promotions company.

“The IT company we work with has specialized in marketing and ad agencies,” says Richards, “so they get what our needs are.”

Cursed with difficulty communicating her tech issues to the previous IT manager, Richards found comfort in the new provider’s ability to speak non-geek. It gave her quick answers to specific software and hardware queries, advice on purchases and recommendations on new event-management programs, servers and mobile devices that could support Event Spectrum’s future operations. Nowadays, the IT professionals are at the table even when Richards sets her annual budget — and she credits them for playing a substantial role in placing Event Spectrum on track to exceed annual revenue of $10 million in the near future.

Time your tech leaps

Sherri Stevens, president of Woodstock, Ont.-based staffing firm Stevens Resource Group Inc. (SRG), has twice acquired recruitment software to facilitate the growth of her company, which ranks 20th on the W100. The first — a $20,000 job-candidate database system called TempTrax — followed a rapid growth spurt in 2003. Stevens needed such a tool to manage her growing client list and meet increasingly complex customer demands. Like so many industries, hers was abandoning the traditional paper-based means of doing business in favour of electronic information storage and management. Stevens knew that it was time to invest in technology or lose SRG’s competitive edge.

“[We needed to] organize so we could query different [job candidate] skill sets without having to go through all the paper files and all the applications,” she says. “So, getting the database for candidates was a real need for us in order to grow and be more efficient.”

By specifying her immediate needs, Stevens could make the right investment for that stage of SRG’s growth. She travelled to various industry conferences, tested numerous recruitment systems and grilled vendor after vendor to assess each product’s usefulness. She ultimately settled on TempTrax for its ability to connect her company’s four branches, its ability to scale with her expanding candidate list and its relatively simple user interface. “At that point, we didn’t have a corporate trainer,” says Stevens, “so I had to make sure it was very easy for people to use.” Faced with stiff competition from multinational recruiters, Stevens wanted, and got, software to help her firm keep pace with her powerful rivals without breaking the bank.

But SRG soon outgrew TempTrax. A year ago, Stevens upgraded to more expansive staffing and recruitment software designed by Bloomington, Minn.-based eEmpACT Software Inc. Even though the new program was costly, Stevens knew she had to act before her company fell behind.

Her priority: efficiency. After Stevens and her IT committee once again tested available recruitment programs, she ultimately decided on eEmpACT’s software because of its speed, complex keyword searches and ability to accept scans of resumés, rather than forcing users to key them in. Another major selling point was the software’s potential for expansion, particularly an extranet module that will give customers self-service options such as placing orders or viewing the billable hours of their SRG-supplied staff members. By knowing which tech tools to buy and when, Stevens says, she has significantly improved her firm’s bottom line.

Let your customers choose for you

At Arlene Dickinson’s Calgary-based marketing firm Venture Communications Ltd. (No. 13), the tech discussion is always collaborative. Invariably, the focus is on utility and the bottom line as the IT department and even individual employees pitch new tech purchases. (The iPhone and BlackBerry Bold are at the top of recent wish lists.) But Dickinson insists that the promised efficiency and eventual costs be analyzed whenever staff hail some new gadget as essential to maintaining Venture’s competitive edge. “Productivity’s got to be measured in quantum leaps in order to make some of these investments pay off,” she explains. Dickinson’s solution has been to include the IT department in budgeting for planned technology investments for future years.

Venture’s president and IT department work together to determine which technologies will enhance the firm’s productivity and efficiency, and position Venture as a leader in the highly competitive marketing industry. Any tech purchases proposed outside of those strict budget guidelines require a solid business case to win Dickinson’s approval.

Most of those tech buys are client-driven. If a client implements new software, for example, Venture will likely have to match that purchase to maintain compatibility. “We get exposed to a lot of our clients in an in-depth way, and they’re very willing to share practices,” she says. “If we see something, we can say, ‘Hey, how did that work for you? Can you share that?'”

It’s the reason Dickinson is always keen to garner the opinions of her project managers and department heads, most of whom are more deeply connected to the technology on a day-to-day basis than she is. She feels that while any entrepreneur can ask an employee’s opinion about buying new computers, the key to making collaboration work is to include the right people in those consultations. That, says Dickinson, is a big step toward finding the most beneficial options in the high-tech haystack.

Execute, or else!

Great plans executed poorly are the downfall of many businesses. The same goes for technology investments: no matter how great the potential of a high-tech gizmo, its payoff will be a function of its implementation. Botch the “install,” and your business could stall — not just in the short term because no one can use the technology, but also in the long term because no one wants to use it.

Lykkemark’s primary concern with her first big tech investment was managing the rollout in a way that would allow her catering business to keep chugging along. Although staff knew that going electronic would streamline operations and eventually make their jobs easier, the tedious manual entry of volumes of recipes and client information would involve everyone from order-takers to chefs.

“I left it up to one of my staff who has a real aptitude for computers and IT, and understood our business. And he worked very closely with our executive chef, who has a good handle on computers,” says Lykkemark of the process. They budgeted extra time to implement the system, and installed it during what’s traditionally the slowest period of the year to work out any bugs and avoid disruptions.

Staff were trained on the program over a period of several months. Still, getting some employees to break old habits and make the switch was a struggle. “At some point, it was about forcing people to use it,” Lykkemark says. “If you want to get your order to the kitchen to get your party done,” she told staff, “[the order] has to be in there.”

Since adopting the system, Lykkemark has opened a branch operation in Beijing. “I couldn’t have gone away for five months to the other side of the planet,” she says, “without having this technology.”

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