Monday, May 11, 2009

Digital Small Business and the Web

A digital economy is far more than simply having lots of internet start-ups. A digital economy is as much about the use of technology as creating technology. The problem with a lot of the conversation around knowledge and digital economy is this requirement is lost as people focus on creating the next Google.
Just as much needs to be done to have small business taking advantage of technology to improve their business as trying to fund new technology companies. It is important to understand the issue here. To have a truly digital economy, small business has to use technology and particular web technology to their greatest potential.

This covers how a business interacts with their customers, with their suppliers/partners and how they manage information internally. You could split these up but to really make a difference small business needs to integrate via workflows (I elaborate on workflows here) not through insiders and outsiders paradigm.

For example, instead of plumbing company having one booking system used by employees to book appointments and another for website bookings rather use a service like BookingBug that both customers and employees can use to make bookings.

But that is only one step. Let’s look at the whole workflow. Basic plumbing workflow is:

  1. appointment is made
  2. plumbing task is done
  3. payment is made.
A customer comes to the site and books an appointment for a plumber. The BookingBug widget shows appointments that have already been booked either by other users on the site or by staff. They pick an appointment and fill in the details. A plumber is sent the information to their iPhone with the details (with the iPhone representing smartphones). The plumber does the job and fills in an invoice via Freshbooks App on the iPhone. This is sent immediately to the customer who can then choose to pay via the payment application on the plumber’s iPhone.

The invoice details are logged to Xero, the accountancy software, which is then followed up with the payment details when payment is made. Any supplies consumed during the plumbing task are sent to the supply management software which logs the usage and re-orders as required. The details of the job and correspondence with the customer are all logged in 37Signals' Highrise.

By bringing in effective web technology (be it SaaS, mobile applications or whatever) into the workflow the administrative burden is reduced (no one had to copy numbers from one system to another) while improving customer service. It allows the plumber (small business) to focus on the plumbing and not on coordinating moving parts.

All of what I described in the example can be done now. It isn’t something for the future but something for now. The glue that binds them together are APIs. It is APIs that allow the requisite data to move between the various applications and create the seemless workflow.

The key to a digital economy is effective use of technology in small business; something that is sadly lacking in the various grand plans for digital economy from Governments and interest groups.
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