Collaboration and the Progressive SMB

Almost all businesses aspire to success–but not all achieve it. SMB Group has identified and written quite a bit about what we term “Progressive SMBs.” Progressive SMBs are more growth driven and invest more in technology than their counterparts. They also view IT as a tool to help the business grow, create market advantage, and level the playing field against bigger companies.

Most important, being a Progressive SMB pays off. In our 2012 SMB Routes to Market Study, 85% of SMBs that plan to invest more in technology anticipated revenue increases. In comparison, only 42% of SMBs that plan to decrease IT spending expected revenues to rise.

Personifying the Progressive SMB: Apex Supply Chain

apex logoI recently had the chance to speak with Karolyn Schalk, VP of IT Infrastructure at Apex Supply Chain. Apex designs and manufactures what it terms “Point-Of-Work Solutions”— vending machines, cabinets, and other devices, as well as software to manage use, inventory, and replenishment. Apex solutions can manage any supplies, tools or equipment that need to be tracked and controlled.

Apex illustrates the kind of attitudes and behaviors that make the fast-growth, Progressive SMB tick. Founded just seven years ago, Apex has grown to become the global leader in automated vending, supplying over 6,500 companies with vending machine solutions. Apex has fueled this growth with new employees, innovative solutions, new locations and acquisitions.

As the company grew, it invested in sales, marketing and service solutions to help increase sales and provide responsive service. But Schalk realized that Apex also needed a better way to collaborate. Sticking with “email collaboration” would eventually slow down innovation, time to market and customer responsiveness–and along with it, growth and expansion.

Cleaning Out the Collaboration Junk Drawer

junk drawer Apex had opened more locations, hired more employees, created new offerings, and made a couple of acquisitions. It’s network of external suppliers, partners, contractors and installers expanded.

But Apex was still using Microsoft Small Business Server and an assortment of email, file sharing and SharePoint for collaboration. Over seven years, Schalk explained, “this had turned into the equivalent of a big junk drawer. Whatever organization was initially in there had been lost.”

As a result, people had problems finding the information they needed, locating the right contacts to get a job done, and tracking tasks. With “end-users living in email, time was wasted and the risk of things falling through the cracks grew,” notes Schalk. “We needed something more manageable and useable to share information and track work.”

Crossing the Collaboration Chasm

Everyone wanted something better. But, despite its faults, end-users were used to the devil they knew–the junk drawer of email and shared files–and skeptical about if and how a different collaboration solution would work.

Schalk realized that successful adoption of any new solution would hinge on users understanding why improving collaboration was critical for the company, and how better collaboration tools would help to facilitate it. She recruited different end-user groups in the company to evaluate collaboration solutions. In the process, Apex evaluated or reviewed cloud-based collaboration solutions from three major vendors, which helped to get people thinking about, seeing and talking about better ways to collaborate and get work done.

Schalk also designated a technology advocate to help end-users understand how a new collaboration solution would help streamline tasks and make their lives easier. As she observed, “My biggest ‘aha’ was understanding we needed a technology advocate. We’re all creatures of habit. People need hand-holding and encouragement to believe that there is a better solution, and show them how it can make it easier for them to share and keep track of work.”

Selecting a Solution

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Apex had decided upfront that it wanted to deploy a cloud-based collaboration solution because, as Schalk noted, “We have a lean IT staff. So the cloud gives us a way to get more value, more quickly and easily than an on-premise solution.”

“Functionality was important, but so was simplicity,” explained Schalk. “We wanted all of the collaboration tools–instant messaging, meetings, community, wikis, blogs, email, etc.–but it needed to be integrated and easy to use.” Other key factors included flexibility, support, security and backup, an easy and secure way to bring external contractors and partners into projects, and mobile capabilities.

After evaluating different solutions, Apex selected IBM’s Smart Cloud for Social Business and deployed in March 2012. According to Schalk, “The initial solution was simple to use and the pieces were well-integrated. In addition, IBM gave us great access to the product team. We felt we’d have input into product development so we’d get changes as our needs evolve.” Since the initial deployment IBM has made several enhancements; in particular, Schalk liked the direction IBM was taking with its Mobile First design point, which gave her confidence that Apex would get the capabilities it needed for a more mobile workforce and world.

She also liked that support came bundled into standard Smart Cloud for Social Business subscription pricing, and that IBM provided “corporate-grade security and backup for highly confidential new product ideas and designs.” The Smart Cloud for Social Business guest model, which lets companies set up free guest accounts for external users, was another point in its favor. “The guest model would make it easier for Apex to collaborate with contractors, suppliers and partners in a secure way,” she added.

Keeping Up With the Speed of What Customers Want

Schalk reports that with the help of the technology advocate, end-users began to explore the tool set and found benefits specific to their work groups. Since then, they have quickly begun using more of the functionality in Smart Cloud for Social Business, because “they don’t have to install anything new, its easy to use, and its all integrated.”

Apex is now better able to “keep up with the speed of what customers want.” For example, the solution is easing the roll out of Apex’s new ERP solution. According to Schalk, “People are updating the task list every 20 minutes because it’s easy. They can do work from anywhere, from home, on a tablet. Almost every other day, someone says, wow, it’s so easy to get things done with a pop-up meeting or iPad app.”

On boarding new employees in this fast-growing business has become much simpler as well. Before, people had to “hunt around to find the right info for each new hire. Now we can just point new hires to the places where we’ve published information about projects, policies and procedures,” explains Schalk.

Schalk says that employees are also using Smart Cloud for Social Business as a complement to their Salesforce.com sales and service applications. Although she would like to see the IBM and Salesforce products more fully integrated, customer support and sales teams view them as complementary, and are sharing relevant conversations and tasks between the solutions.

Perspective

Social Business People Network  inside Speech BubbleProgressive SMBs that create and sustain rapid growth are defined not only by larger IT investments, but their attitudes about applying technology to help achieve business goals.

Many SMBs recognize that effective collaboration is critical to building and growing a successful business. Taking steps to develop a more collaborative culture, such as Apex did, pave the way to getting the results you want from a collaboration solution. As the Apex story illustrates, it pays off to:

  • Focus on collaboration as a means to desired business outcomes–such as faster time to market, or faster decision-making.
  • Get people engaged in the process early on to elevate awareness and conversations about better ways to get things done.
  • Lend a helping hand–such as a technology advocate–to help users who are reluctant to change see how a different approach will make their lives easier.

This sets the stage not only for selecting the solution that will best meet your business needs, but also ensures faster user adoption and, ultimately, the outcomes you’re looking for from that solution.

This blog was sponsored by IBM Smart Cloud for Social Business to help educate small and medium businesses (SMBs) about how collaboration tools and social technologies can help their businesses.

One Response

  1. Great case study Laurie! Its refreshing to see things from the side of a customer who could make day to day operations smoother with collaboration tools.

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