The latest tech systems and cutting-edge software can open new markets, increase productivity, and result in significant cost savings for small businesses.
None of that can happen, however, without a key non-tech component: a management team that can tailor the system to a firm's unique needs and bring its workplace culture up to speed.
"The challenge for small businesses is to be able to sort out what works and what doesn't work," says Antonio Grijalva, founder and CEO of Houston-based outsourcing firm Grijalva and Allen. "And to realize that computers and communications are only as good as the rules you establish to use them."
Actcom, a Virginia security firm servicing government, military, and commercial firms, recently installed a comprehensive tracking system for its fleet.
"It's a very valuable management tool," says president and CEO Ray Lorenzo. "You get the immediate benefit in that you can have a Big Brother that watches everyone all the time. For the technicians in the field, just knowing we have the capability leads to some immediate improvement."
That same Big Brother could be a concern for some employees, of course.
"We're very open about it," Mr. Lorenzo says. "We make it very clear in the pre-hire interview process that we do this. The technicians accept it and buy into the practice."
Now, he says, the employees have embraced the tracking system.
"Instead of making management decisions at an upper level, this takes it down to where the rubber meets the road. It has pushed the decision process down to people who can really make a difference, down to real time."
TriNet Communications, a telecom equipment distributor, has found a system that provides software upgrades for its remote sales team, its warehouses, and its California headquarters, all at the same time. TriNet has eliminated the need for an information technology department and given its employees greater ability to tap into the firm's database.
"The main thing we wanted to do is give people access to our accounting system and inventory management system from essentially anywhere," TriNet president and CEO Jon Fernandez says.
These three Hispanic-owned companies have improved productivity and saved thousands of dollars by not only identifying and investing in high-tech solutions, but by applying them in a manner that was right for their firm and their employees.
Keeping tabs on a mobile workforce - technicians driving a fleet of trucks across several states - might sound like a daunting task. And it was for security specialist Actcom, until the company installed Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking on its truck fleet. Now, dispatchers and management can monitor the position of every truck, in real time.
Offering access control, intrusion detection, and other security services to commercial, military, and federal customers, Actcom, headquartered in Virginia Beach, has 24 trucks that sprawl from the Carolinas to metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C.
"We have a visual map. We can see the whole fleet, or view one vehicle, zooming down to the street address they're at," says Bob Matson, vice-president of operations. Actcom has been tracking its fleet with GPS since April 2003.
"We started on a trial basis with five trucks and fell in love with it," Mr. Matson says. After 90 days, the company implemented tracking across the fleet. In addition to the visual map, a running service ticket shows how long a technician takes to arrive at a job site and how much time they spend there. Any diversions, and even how long they take for lunch, are tracked as well.
"This is critical when you have a remote workforce," says Actcom president and CEO Ray Lorenzo. "We've seen about a 40 percent efficiency increase."
Adding the tracking hardware is an easy retrofit, taking three to four hours to install. The hardware, installed by a local company, costs $400 to $500 per vehicle. Relaying of the location data is provided by Data Burst Technologies (www.databurst.com) for a flat fee of about $25 per vehicle. The dispatcher's monitoring station is a standard PC, and management can monitor the fleet from any Internet-connected PC.
The system also can improve driving safety. "We have talked to people about speeding. We've actually called them on their cell phones and told them to slow down," Mr. Matson explains.
In another case, a driver who was lost in Washington, D.C., was able to get assistance from the dispatcher, who helped him find his way to the client.
GPS technology has improved the decision-making process for service dispatchers. When an emergency call comes in, the dispatcher can immediately find and mobilize the closest service truck. "It's impossible to know where 20-plus trucks are all the time," Mr. Matson says. "This has made that job a heck of a lot easier. In two minutes [the dispatcher] can tell who she's got there instead of trying to call people or relying on her memory."
The technology has made it easier for Actcom to service its priority clients, who are guaranteed a two- to four-hour response time. "Previously, we were definitely pushing the upper limit," Mr. Matson says. "Today we don't have that kind of issue, because we have the accountability of where the vehicles are." He estimates that priority customers now see an average response time of under three hours.
Customers feel better knowing that help is on the way, he says, and precisely when it will arrive. Even during a crisis, by telling the customer the exact location, speed, and estimated time of arrival of the en-route technician, Actcom is able to keep the customer calm.
"From a service response standpoint, that's invaluable," says Mr. Lorenzo.
For most companies, the idea of a paperless office seems like a pipe dream. But one Houston-based company showed it could be done.
Grijalva & Allen (G&A), which provides outsourced administrative services, has gone exclusively digital with the help of Ricoh's eCabinet electronic imaging system (www.ecabinet.net). The system allows the company to save documents on a server instead of file cabinets.
"In the HR business, we process literally thousands of transactions and archive thousands of pages of information. Each employee has probably 25 to 30 pages of data, and we have to retain that data for many years," says Mr. Grijalva, founder and president of G&A. Before the eCabinet system, G&A would send boxes stuffed with documents to an offsite records-storage company. Every time G&A needed information stored offsite, the storage company would charge to pull the box and ship the records - a process that could take days. An electronically stored file, on the other hand, can be retrieved in minutes without cost.
Electronic documents also can be made available on the web, which gives employees in G&A's four field offices access to information on file, including financial records, e-mail and voice-mail messages, contracts, and budgets.
In addition, G&A can grant its clients access to their own files. When a client wants information, such as an employee review record, "rather than calling us and asking for hard copy, they can access our Web site and look at their file," Mr. Grijalva says. A document retrieval that cost $80 to $100 and took three to four man-hours can now take three to 15 minutes, with virtually no additional cost to the company.
The total investment for the eCabinet system runs between $75,000 and $80,000, including equipment and labor costs. The hardware itself costs about $25,000.
Importing older paper documents into the system is a more expensive task. Paper documents need to be digitized, a process which Mr. Grijalva estimates cost his firm between $30,000 and $40,000. That included hiring workers to scan documents, training, and hiring a manager to oversee the undertaking. To save time and money, G&A only scanned documents going back a year or two.
As employees generate new documents, they do so electronically rather than on paper, so that information won't need to be scanned. Mr. Grijalva says that developing the discipline to do this remains a major challenge for the company.
"It is very hard to get away from paper and rely totally on electronic versions. It's going to be a culture change for us as a company to realize that we don't have to rely on paper all the time as we switch to an electronic medium."
In addition to speedier access to information, the company estimates it will save $30,000 a year on paper by creating electronic documents. It will also spend less for offsite document storage, reducing the $1,000 monthly storage bill.
Still, electronic storage isn't a total panacea. Legal requirements mean that some documents must be retained, usually for one year.
With multiple locations and many users, implementing the system is a complex undertaking but one that Mr. Grijalva is confident will mean a better future for his firm.
"As an outsourcing company it makes sense for us to do this," he says. "We are always looking for more efficient ways to do things cheaper than our clients can."
For many businesses, keeping software up-to-date, configured, and running properly on dozens or hundreds of PCs is an expensive and seemingly endless chore for weary IT staffs.
TriNet Communications, a telecommunications equipment distributor based in Livermore, California, has largely eliminated this problem by installing software that simultaneously serves its main office, its warehouses, and its sales staff.
Using a product called MetaFrame Pres-entation Server by Citrix (www.citrix.com), TriNet has simplified and centralized its technology maintenance.
"MetaFrame also allows us to 'publish' applications, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and Lotus Notes, to all users," says president and CEO Jon Fernandez. "Now, if we perform a software update, we can simply perform the upgrade once on the server, and all users have access to the latest version."
Not having to maintain and troubleshoot software on 25 far-flung PCs is a boon, but the real cost savings come at software upgrade time.
The company doesn't have an IT department - Mr. Fernandez and one employee manage the software along with their other duties. Now, Mr. Fernandez says, "every time we upgrade the software, we save $5,000 to $6,000 by not having to upgrade every computer."
Additionally, TriNet's sales teams and warehouses across the country have instant access to the new software, and authorized employees even can access it from home or while out of town.
"The biggest benefit is that our people - especially remote sales people working on their laptops out of their houses - can get into everything," he says.
While the MetaFrame system offers tremendous benefits, Mr. Fernandez cautions that its high price may not make it right for every business.
"The biggest drawback is that it is an expensive piece of software," he says. TriNet spent $20,000 on their original Citrix MetaFrame Server and then around $7,000 to upgrade to the Presentation Server. "Altogether the cost is around $27,000 - not including the consultant time to install and configure it."
"Another drawback," Mr. Fernandez adds, "is that the license fees are expensive."
Still, for many companies like TriNet, the system's benefits far outweigh its cost: According to Mr. Fernandez, Citrix MetaFrame is the number 1 remote access software on the market, with Presentation Server the latest and greatest upgrade.
Mr. Fernandez also says that employees adjusted quickly once the Presentation Server was implemented. "Our remote employees already were using Citrix MetaFrame," he explains. "When we upgraded to Presentation Server, it actually made the access easier."
TriNet employees appreciate particularly the increased speed of the system, even for users accessing software on the local network.
"Over the network, our accounting software plugs away," Mr. Fernandez says. "But if you go in through Presentation Server it's probably twice as fast." That provides an instant productivity increase.
"We're very heavy computer users," he adds. "You don't want people staring at the computer waiting for things to load."