Business development consultant Roger Ford is president of the New Zealand Software Association. Contractor caught up with him recently for a discussion about the ways in which small-to-medium sized enterprises can best engage with software providers to help their business.
Roger Ford believes that right now is one of those rare points in history where vast amounts of technological advancement are happening in an equally vast number of fields at one time. But cutting through all the noise and knowing what to embrace as right for our particular businesses remains a challenge.
Contractor: How has software changed in the past decade or so?
Roger Ford: Fundamentally it has evolved hugely. Software is maturing and getting more and more user-friendly. Software used to be procedural in the ‘old days’, where a developer would write a program and it would perform a function. Then it became about automating business processes; replacing paper with a digitised version of essentially the same information. Now software has become extremely clever at how it integrates. It is more modularised; a software engineer might pull together 80 different bits of software and create a solution for one company, for example. It’s engineering rather than building – and a piece of software is predominantly engineered to connect with everything else.
Contractor: You’ve been consulting with businesses for almost two decades on many aspects, including software implementation. Do you find that some businesses are fearful of adopting software solutions?
Roger Ford: I don’t think it is fear so much as uncertainty. We’re now in an environment where there is a distinct generational divide in the workplace; we have ‘Digital Natives’ – those who grew up with the internet – and what many refer to as ‘Digital Immigrants’, which are the rest of us who have adapted to and learnt what the internet can provide for us as it has evolved over the past 15 to 20 years. There is a generational element to this, as the majority of people in senior leadership or decision- making positions within businesses right now are older. But it’s not the generational make-up of the user that creates uncertainty; it’s the speed with which software has developed. What has happened is that the pace of software development has moved so fast that it has created something of a double-edged situation where users can see and utilise phenomenal improvements, but on the other side of the equation there is this concern that six months down the track whatever has been adopted might be superseded or even redundant. This creates a sceptical environment for some.
Contractor: Why is it that the need to continually update software is perceived as such a concern?
Roger Ford: Being an SME is all about investment and all about risk. You invest in the right things to do whatever it is you do best. But risk is that much closer when you’re a smaller player; risk taking up a quarter of an employee’s time is a lot different to risk taking up a quarter of a business owner’s time. Risk becomes extremely personal when it isn’t separated out as it might be in a large divisional company. But the exciting thing with the way enterprise class software is evolving is that it has had all the risks taken out of it. That risk is being eliminated because many software solutions are now cloud hosted and available on a month-by-month subscription basis.
Contractor: But software does eventually get superseded, so what is the real lifespan of a good piece of software?
Roger Ford: Even if something that is perceived by the industry as a ‘better’ piece of software comes along a few months after the investment has been made in another type of software, there’s no point in sweating it. If you have chosen what you’re using well and it works for your business, then it will continue to work. Nothing becomes completely outmoded in this way in a short timeframe and the software you’ve invested in will probably be good for another five years in reality. It’s all about adopting what suits best in the first place, but business owners shouldn’t get distracted by all the noise about the latest and greatest that’s just over the horizon.
Contractor: So how does a business decide what software is going to work for them and what might not?
Roger Ford: What makes the biggest amount of impact for the least risk? With the right integrators and technical support you can put together some clever solutions that leverage an enormous amount of technology. Software doesn’t change the core values of what a business does – it doesn’t change what a digger does with dirt. But it does enable the management of the company to know more about their business – about processes, machine location, notifications and contingency.
Contractor: What specific developments are really shaping the way businesses access and utilise software?
Roger Ford: Tablet computers are transforming the world. They’ve changed the way people do business and as a result of this delivery device, software standards – especially around UX or ‘user experience’ –have improved immensely. There are 600,000 apps out there. But it’s a mistake to try and change your business to suit a particular app; rather business owners should find an app or a group of apps that suit the business and will collectively help it to establish a competitive edge. In essence SMEs shouldn’t be asking ‘What’s the best technology for my business?’, but rather ‘What does my business need to achieve and how can technology help me get there?’
Contractor: Are local software solutions as good as international ones?
Roger Ford: Absolutely. There are some fantastic enterprise software options that are engineered right here in New Zealand. In fact I would always advise businesses to research solutions in your own back yard before you opt for something overseas. A case in point would be HR software; having a development team that has modelled the solution based on local legislation is crucial, as HR legislation can be dramatically different from country to country. But in essence, everything that is happening overseas has a local representative attached, so do some research and find out the best channel with which to engage with them.
Contractor: How do you know if a piece of software will be right for your business?
Roger Ford: For companies within the construction sector I’d say apply the same robust evaluation process to a software programme that you would to a new piece of machinery.There’s no denying that there is a lot of noise around this subject at the moment and that can be quite daunting, so you need to ask questions. Talk to your peers in the industry and talk to your trade associations; you won’t be the only one with questions.We’re really still at the frontier of all of this – devices, cloud computing, increased connectivity through mobile communications… we’re only talking about five to 10 years of experience right now.
But it is an incredible time to be engaging in this. And it’s an incredible time to be doing business.