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Stephen Woods, consultant at Deputy, the workforce management app that simplifies scheduling, timesheets, tasks and workplace communication explains how small businesses can make sure they don’t get caught up looking for the next shiny technology.

The UK is in the midst of what commentators have labelled a ‘productivity puzzle’. Since 2008 levels of productivity have flatlined despite the best efforts of policy makers to reignite the growth in efficiency we saw before the financial crisis. One of the more puzzling issues has been the failure of technology to move the needle on productivity growth. Large numbers of innovative, genuinely helpful technology platforms have been released in the last decade with the power to revolutionise operations for many SMEs. Yet businesses, by and large, are still only as efficient today as they were in 2008.

A recent report by Yorkshire Bank found that 71% of businesses cite technology to be a key driver for growth. Yet UK businesses are relatively poor at technology adoption. The productivity crisis is down to “low take-up of readily available technologies and management best practices” according to The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) who recommend businesses become more like “magpies” constantly seeking out readily available tech to drive their operation forward.

Rarely commented on is the negative impact for adoption that choice between so many different platforms can bring. With so many solutions and so much choice paradoxes can start to appear:

“When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable … But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear … the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates.”

The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz

With no dedicated procurement department the process of researching, evaluating and selecting the right platforms can seem overwhelming for an SMB business. For many it’s only when serious issues arise that they’re able to escape the strong gravitational pull of a status quo approach to operations management.

A Path For Procurement

The following is a list of pointers to help avoid the paradox of choice. This ensures decisions on technology can align with your current position and vision for the future of your business as well as an understanding and prioritisation of operational touch points that can most benefit from innovative technologies.

1. Understand where you sit

How efficiently is your business running at the moment? How well do you sit against peer companies in your industry? What metrics are you using to evaluate productivity? Historically these have been difficult questions to answers for many SMEs. In 2017 Sir Charlie Mayfield leveraged his position as chairman of John Lewis to co-found Be The Business, a business-led movement that enables collaboration between business owners and shared knowledge of best practices. Platforms such as these enable you to benchmark your company’s productivity against others in similar sectors.

2. Focus on interoperability

The march of cloud computing continues with nearly 70% of SMBs currently harnessing some form of cloud computing service according to CBR Online. Limiting your technology search to cloud platforms is a good approach to future proofing investments. More important however is evaluating how well these platforms plug and play with others in the market. For SMBs technology adoption is often an incremental process. Investing in cloud platforms that offer seamless integrations with neighbouring products is key. For example prior to investing in a point of sale platform you might ensure it first integrates with available cloud based accounts systems and workforce management tools. The higher the level of integration between platforms the less chance of your key business data existing in silos that prevent a 360 degree view of your operation.

3. Map out your operation and identify pain points

Breakdown your SMB operation into different blocks such as those below:

Evaluate how are each of these areas are currently managed and map out the journey data takes through your organisation as it touches each one. For example when a sale is processed how does the relevant data get into your accounts platform. Is sales data used elsewhere – for example to forecast how many staff you might need in the future or to update inventory levels? Are there traditional manual processes mixing with more automated ones? Do you use a modern cloud payroll platform but still manage the scheduling of workers on paper and spreadsheets. Where do things tend to break down? Where does the flow of data get stuck? In which areas do you lack visibility into the key business intelligence needed to streamline operations and drive efficiencies? Where might the biggest benefits come from?

4. Strategically Prioritise

Rather than making procurement decisions on impulse evaluate first how such projects fit with the purpose and priorities on your business. In his “Hierarchy of Purpose” framework author Antonio Nieto Rodriguez recommends businesses prioritise projects based on their purpose, the strategic vision that supports this and their key strategic priorities over the next 5 years. For example, even though the biggest holes might be in your customer loyalty programme, improving labour scheduling and payroll processes might take precedence as these align with your vision to build an employee-centric business that derives efficiencies from a highly engaged workforce. You can then source technology from vendors who not only offer the features you require but share a similar vision to business transformation.

5. Effectively manage deployments

You’ve identified and prioritised the roadblocks in your business operation, shortlisted vendors and contracted with the right supplier. A successful implementation is often equally dependent on both client and vendor managing the process effectively. Ideally you’ll have at least a dedicated project champion, responsible for project steering and change management. When deploying solutions to your workforce there is rarely a second chance to make a great first impression. If your early projects go well it can build a positive feedback loop for continued deployments.

Avoiding Shiny Objects and Paradoxes

In the UK productivity is growing slowest amongst businesses with 10 – 50 employees. This presents many challenges that can hinder the next generation of enterprises from breaking through. The CBI mention the need for businesses to become more like “magpies”, constantly seeking out the available technology to drive their operation forward. But it’s important the analogy doesn’t run too far and SMEs avoid impulsively seeking out the latest shiny offering from vendors. It’s also key SMEs aren’t paralysed by the paradox of choice. Between these two sides of the spectrum lies the ideal path: businesses continuing to plan technology investments carefully, aligning them with company vision, filling the right holes and prioritising successful execution.