Discussing 2015 SMB Tech Trends, Part 1: Cloud is the New IT Infrastructure for SMBs

Recently, I had the pleasure of kicking off the new year as a guest on Act Local Marketing for Small Business with host Kalynn Amadio. Each week, Kalynn shares information and actionable tips to help inspire and motivate small and medium businesses (SMBs) reach their business goals.  On this episode, Kalynn and I discussed SMB Group’s 2015 Top Technology Trends for SMBs and what they mean to the marketing and running of your business. The first of a five-part series, this post summarizes our discussion of “Cloud is the new IT infrastructure for SMBs.”

White Clouds in Blue SkyKalynn: Welcome, this is Kalynn Amadio and you are listening to ACT LOCAL Marketing for Small Business, and I want to introduce you to a previous guest of the show. I can tell you that Laurie’s previous podcasts were some of the most downloaded in this show’s history. Laurie, I’ll have to look up how many downloads you have altogether, I haven’t done that in a long time, it’s always fun.

Laurie: Hi Kalynn, great to talk to you again too.

Kalynn: I’ll tell you, I mentioned that the couple of other interviews you’ve done with me, because Laurie always looks into her crystal ball and tells us what is on the horizon, what can we be thinking about, and people must really like this Laurie because they download those two podcasts that have predictions more so than many of the other interviews that I’ve done over the years, so kudos to you.

Laurie: Thank you Kalynn, that’s great to hear. We try to put these technology trends into a language that us mere mortals that are not necessarily technologists can understand and relate to in terms of our businesses.

Kalynn: It’s important to have some smarty-pants people like you looking at all this stuff and making it understandable for the rest of us. Now you have a report that’s going to be coming out soon that are the small and medium SMB groups, Top Ten Small and Medium Business Technology Trends for 2015. We won’t have time to go through all ten of them but I have cherry picked half of them that I’m hoping that we will get through because several of them will impact local businesses, small businesses, a lot of the baby boomers that I deal with and marketing related things. The first one I want to ask you about is the cloud, right? A lot of businesses still get confused about what that means. I can’t tell how many times I’ve had to explain what the cloud actually is, but tell us about the cloud as the new IT infrastructure for small to mid-size businesses.

Laurie: Okay, fantastic. Our first prediction, as a matter of fact, is that cloud is the new infrastructure for SMBs.   What we’ve seen over the years, and believe it or not, this concept of cloud computing has been around since really the late 1990s, but it kind of got off to a rocky start for a lot of reasons that we don’t really need to go into in detail. Suffice it to say that maybe in the beginning the concept was a little ahead of its time in terms of the available technology and network bandwidth and things like that. We’ve basically seen cloud really take off in the last few years, especially since the recession. Interestingly what we’re finding is the cloud is definitely enabling a lot of smaller companies that no way no how could they have ever been able to implement a lot of different technology solutions on their own. The cloud is kind of leveling the playing field because they don’t have to have in-house technology expertise to deploy these solutions. We’re really seeing in our research more and more small businesses believe very strongly that technology solutions help them improve their business outcomes or run their businesses better. The cloud has really been a way for these guys to get those solutions that can really help them fulfill their business goals without having a lot of IT staff.

Kalynn: When you talk about cloud IT solutions, give us some household names.

Laurie: There are a million of them. You now have QuickBooks Online, Intuit QuickBooks Online, which has now I think probably 750 or 800,000 customers are running QuickBooks online. That’s something obviously kind of a household name for small businesses. Also vendors like Salesforce.com, InfusionSoft, or ReachLocal, which has a great marketing automation solution for local businesses. There are lots of them virtually in every solution category. Most of us are already using cloud-based email solutions for using Gmail or Office 365 or something like that. Really almost every single category of applications is now available in the cloud. What we see in our last survey that we did in 2014 earlier this year is that 92% of SMBs are now using at least one cloud business solution which is the kinds I just mentioned, like accounting, marketing and sales and things like that. 87%, almost as many, are using at least one cloud infrastructure solution. That could be for security, or backup, or file sharing like DropBox and Box.net, and things like that. We really see small and medium businesses it is already mainstream for them, but a lot of them are only using maybe one or two. I think as these businesses really see the benefits of automating parts of their businesses with technology and have a good experience with cloud solutions we’re going to see that cloud expansion rise even further. There really aren’t a lot of barriers to adopting a cloud-based solution.

Kalynn: Right, and it really saves you in your budget because you don’t have to maintain any of this infrastructure or these types of software yourself. They’re so helpful.

Laurie: It’s really helpful. One of the big sticking points for cloud is that while it reduces a lot of the technology barriers, it hasn’t helped a lot of small businesses in terms of reducing business expertise barriers. In other words, you may have a very successful business but you yourself may not be an accounting expert or a marketing expert, or whatever, but we’re starting to see especially in what I would call some of the newer cloud solutions more expertise built-in and more kinds of hand holding services provided, and a big emphasis on user experience, creating a user experience that makes it much easier for people that aren’t subject matter experts to understand how they can most effectively use the solution in their business for better marketing, accounting, or whatever.

You can listen to the complete podcast discussion here

SMB Group Top 10 SMB Technology Trends for 2015

crystal ball

(Originally published on the SMB Group website and available here in .pdf format).

Here are SMB Group’s Top 10 SMB Technology Trends for 2015! A more detailed description of each follows below.

(Note: SMB Group is the source for all research data quoted unless otherwise indicated.)

  1. Cloud is the new IT infrastructure for SMBs.
  2. SMB IT staff and channel partners evolve into cloud managers.
  3. SMBs recalibrate IT strategy and spending for a mobile world.
  4. The Internet of Things (IoT) comes into focus.
  5. SMBs reinvent marketing for the new buyer journey.
  6. KPIs trump ROI and TCO as the new “show me” metric.
  7. Analytics gets SMB-friendly with “bring your own data” and freemium offerings.
  8. It’s time to reimagine work.
  9. SMBs place a premium on protection.
  10. SMBs opt for an incremental, integrated solutions approach.

Detailed SMB Group Top 10 SMB Technology Trends for 2015

  1. Cloud is the new IT infrastructure for SMBs. SMBs increasingly view technology as a key business enabler. According to SMB Group research, 67% of small businesses (1–99 employees) and 81% of medium businesses (100–999 employees) say that technology solutions help them improve business outcomes or run the business better. However, most SMBs don’t have the resources necessary to keep pace with technology on their own. Just 19% of small businesses employ full-time dedicated IT staff. And while 86% of medium businesses have internal IT staff, they are typically IT generalists who lack expertise in newer technology areas such as mobile and analytics. As SMB requirements for fast, easy access to new social and mobile analytics solutions, more compute power and storage, and other services have been increasing, cloud adoption has boomed—with 92% of SMBs are now using at least one cloud business solution and 87% using at least one cloud infrastructure solution. In 2015, cloud solutions are poised for hockey stick growth as more SMB decision-makers turn to a cloud-first approach that not only supports existing business models, but also enables them to develop innovative new products, services and business models. Public cloud adoption will continue to significantly outpace that of private cloud, but more medium businesses in particular will consider a hybrid cloud approach, particularly in industries and applications where security and privacy are top concerns.
  2. SMB IT staff and channel partners evolve into cloud managers. As the cloud becomes mainstream, both internal SMB IT staff and external channel partner roles will evolve from implementation and break/fix support to become more proactive and strategic. SMBs will look for staff and channel partners that can work with line-of-business decision-makers to better align technology investments with business goals, select best-fit solutions and manage cloud service providers. Internal IT staff and channel partners will also need stronger integration expertise to help SMBs get more value from their technology investments. Channel partners will need to cultivate consultative selling and adjust staffing skill sets accordingly. SMB decision-makers will seek help to better understand and articulate new skill-set requirements, and to hire and/or contract for these needs. They will be hungry for thought leadership from SMB vendors, analysts and other influencers.
  3. SMBs recalibrate IT strategy and spending for a mobile world. A growing majority of SMBs now regard mobile solutions as essential business enablers, with 60% saying that mobile solutions are critical to their business. 86% of SMBs agree or strongly agree that mobile apps are a complement to traditional business applications, and 71% believe that mobile apps will replace some traditional solutions entirely. Mobile solutions also account for a growing share of SMBs’ technology budgets. SMB median spending on mobile technology and solutions as a percentage of total technology spending rose from roughly 12% in 2013 to 16% in 2014. Mobile service and device costs still account for the bulk of SMB mobile budgets, but SMB spending in other areas is rising as a percentage of mobile spend. On average, in 2014, SMBs spent 11% of their mobile dollars on apps, 9% on security, 11% on mobile management and 8% on consulting. Planned increased investment in mobile apps and more diverse mobile devices will necessitate a spike in mobile management adoption as well.
  4. The Internet of Things (IoT) comes into focus. IT vendors and prognosticators have been forecasting explosive growth for more intelligent and connected devices of all types. However, many IoT scenarios have been cast in a consumer light, such as smart watches and Tile (a locator for items such as keys and glasses), and the IoT vision has been fuzzy for many SMBs. In 2015, however, early but compelling use-case scenarios and solutions will emerge, leading more SMBs to the “aha” moments required to spark adoption. For instance, radio-frequency identification (RFID) has been used in logistics to track pallets and crates for some time, but mostly in closed-loop systems for high-value goods. IoT will help reduce RFID costs, making it more practical and appealing to retailers to use in order to help improve inventory accuracy, automate customer checkout and reduce theft. Beacons, which are indoor positioning systems that communicate directly with smart phones via Bluetooth, provide another compelling SMB use case. For example, a network of in-store beacons can identify the location of customers in a store and send them push notifications. Or, a trucking company could install beacons to monitor the state of its trucks, provide more timely maintenance, reduce vehicle downtime and decrease costs. Once SMBs understand use cases more clearly, IoT will hold great appeal because it is mostly invisible to end users, which negates adoption issues, and it provides real-time data for better decision-making and better business outcomes.
  5. SMBs reinvent marketing for the new buyer journey. The buyer journey is evolving rapidly and includes many more touch points than ever before. SMBs must transform their marketing approach to connect with more prospects and customers, and to provide them with the right information at the right time in the buying journey. Although many small and even medium businesses rely on point solutions, more will turn to an integrated marketing approach. In 2014, 20% of small businesses and 25% of medium businesses had purchased/upgraded to a marketing automation solution in the past 24 months. Meanwhile, 22% of small businesses and 26% of medium businesses plan to purchase/upgrade a marketing automation solution in the next 12 months. More SMBs will realize that choosing the right marketing automation solution is one of the most important technology decisions they will make, particularly as cloud, mobile, social, analytics and other technologies continue to transform the buying process.
  6. KPIs trump ROI and TCO as the new “show me” metric. Historically, vendors have tended to focus on proving solution value through return on investment (ROI) and total cost of ownership (TCO) analysis and metrics. But these assessments and metrics, while often beneficial, are frequently too vague and/or too dependent on nuanced measurements to be compelling for SMBs. In comparison, key performance indicators (KPIs) can provide SMBs with specific, actionable insights on business performance and what areas need improvement. With so many vendors fighting for SMB dollars, SMBs will increasingly seek out those that help them understand what KPIs are most relevant for their business and industry, and those that provide credible, specific metrics about how their solutions affect these KPIs.
  7. Analytics gets SMB-friendly with “bring your own data” and freemium offerings. Most SMBs don’t have data analysts on staff. These businesses often are intimidated by analytics solutions, which have traditionally been expensive, complex and difficult to use. But cloud computing, better user interfaces, visualization tools, improved algorithms and natural language capabilities as well as a growing number of freemium offerings designed for business decision-makers—not data scientists—are poised to change this. For instance, IBM’s Watson freemium offering allows users to bring in data from many sources, and it has capabilities that reduce data preparation and loading time, including a “fix it” button to repair data quality issues. Once data is plugged into Watson, users can query in natural language to analyze information. As more solutions designed for people with little or no data preparation and analytics skills emerge, analytics will become more consumable for SMBs.
  8. It’s time to reimagine work. Whether you prefer the hashtag #futureofwork, #newwaytowork, #reimaginework or something else, it’s clear that change is on the horizon. Processes, tools, attitudes and behaviors are shifting as mobile, social, cloud, analytics, IoT and other technology advances take hold in SMBs. Likewise, demographic shifts are reshaping the makeup of SMB workers as well as their expectations of what technology should do and how it should do it. For instance, millennials and digital natives are rising through the workforce ranks, while baby boomers are starting to retire or move to part-time work. Meanwhile, the ranks of temporary and contract workers continue to grow. The National Employment Law Project found that temporary help agencies, staffing agencies, professional employer organizations and employment placement agencies fill 2.5% of all jobs, up from 1.4% in 1990. In addition, easy-to-use consumer apps and devices have raised the bar for user experience in the business-to-business (B2B) world. This changing mix of resources, behavior, attitudes and requirements will lead more SMBs to seek better, easier and more affordable ways to access, evaluate, buy and get productive with technology solutions. Vendors that understand and plan for this evolution, provide clear solution value and make SMB customers feel that they are part of a strong ecosystem will have a decisive edge as this trend unfolds. Providing easy access and free trials, clear messaging, a delightful user experience, superior support and vibrant user communities will be key to tapping into this trend.
  9. SMBs place a premium on protection. SMBs are already using basic security and backup tools. However, our research shows that most use point solutions that only tackle part of the problem. The use of more comprehensive solutions to protect and manage data is still far from the norm. But greater reliance on technology, an increasing number of “moving parts” (traditional apps and infrastructure, cloud, social, mobile, etc.) and the need to manage data no matter where it resides necessitate better security, control and management capabilities. SMBs need only turn on the news to understand the financial, brand and legal ramifications of data breaches at large companies such as Sony Pictures, Home Depot and eBay. As awareness rises, SMBs will place a premium on more comprehensive solutions from vendors that offer proactive guidance, deeper expertise, stronger service-level agreements (SLAs) and 24/7 support for an always-on world.
  10. SMBs opt for an incremental, integrated solutions approach. New cloud, mobile and social solutions have made it easier for SMBs to access and use new applications, but they have offered little help with integration. Although 63% of SMBs have partially integrated some applications, 79% still rely on manual Excel file uploads or custom code for integration, which underscores the severity of the problem. SMBs typically lack the expertise and resources to manage the entire integration process, and they need solutions that both encompass and better integrate cloud, mobile, social, analytics, security and other technologies. However, SMBs don’t want—and can’t digest—monolithic solutions. Vendors need to accommodate SMB integration requirements with a LEGO-like approach that enables SMBs to acquire only what they need at a given point in time, and then to add on new capabilities (their own or those of partners) with as little friction as possible when new needs arise. Although integration remains one of the toughest technology nuts to crack, we see new hope. Open ecosystems, embedded integration capabilities and stronger APIs should help pave the way, as should toolsets designed to help non-technical users to configure integrations without coding if they understand business integration workflows and requirements. Built-in collaboration and social communities to help users crowdsource information, find experts and share and/or sell integrations will also be key to making SMB integration a reality.

About SMB Group

SMB Group focuses exclusively on researching and analyzing the highly fragmented “SMB market”—which is composed of many smaller, more discrete markets. Within the SMB market, SMB Group’s areas of focus include: Emerging Technologies, Cloud Computing, Managed Services, Business and Marketing Applications, Collaboration and Social Media Solutions, IT Infrastructure Management and Services, and Green IT.

IBM Reimagines the Email Story With IBM Verse

email iconYou’ve got mail! It’s been a long time since most of us have experienced the surge of pleasurable anticipation that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan enjoyed in the 1998 classic, “You’ve Got Mail.”

Instead, if you’re like me and many others, opening your business inbox has become a soul-sucking experience that consumes too much time, distracts you from more important tasks, and leaves you feeling that in spite of all the time you spend in email, you probably missed something important. Yet with all of its flaws, you continue to use email because it has become a seemingly irreplaceable part of the business workflow.

You’ve Got Information Overload!

The feeling of information overload that many of us experience isn’t surprising. According to Osterman Research, most corporate decision makers and influencers view email as the single most important application they have deployed. The typical user spends two hours per day working in the corporate email system and sends or receives a median of 130 emails per day. Email is also the primary method for:

  • Sending an attachment for 94% of users.
  • Sharing files while on a call for 60% of users.
  • Managing a project for 56% of users.

Sadly, much of this time is wasted: According to a 2012 Grossman Group study, middle managers typically spend 100 hours a year on irrelevant email. Many frustrations arise from this sorry state of affairs, including some of my top aggravations:

  • That nagging feeling that I’ve missed something (especially in all of those crazy Google threads!).
  • Spending too much time catching up on email after work hours so I’m not swamped the next day. For better or worse, this is easier than ever because I can do it on my iPhone.
  • Spending too much time searching for that one, elusive email that I really need.
  • Toggling back and forth from my email to calendar to find open time for meetings.
  • Getting back to what I was supposed to be working on after be email distractions.

But, despite these problems—and the emergence of newer digital communications methods (social networking, activity streams, text messages, IM, etc.) touted as email replacements—email is still very much alive and well. While newer methods are making some headway (and in fact, reducing email use in our personal lives), email remains the top form of business communication. In fact, 52% of those surveyed by Osterman Research indicated that their use of email had actually increased over the previous 12 months, while for 44%, use remained the same. Use declined for only 3% of respondents.

Towards A More Intelligent Inbox

To be fair, email has evolved since the first email with an @ sign was sent (reputedly in 1972, by Ray Tomlinson, an ARPANET contractor and Internet pioneer). Commercial developers got in the game, and developed folders to organize email, offline synchronization, standards and protocols, web interfaces, search capabilities, spam filters, ways to pre-sort emails into different buckets and more to make email more user-friendly and usable.

Although these improvements have helped somewhat, the original paradigm of looking at a big long list of stuff—emails, files and folders—remains. We’ve gained more ways to slice and dice our inbox, but it’s still served up to us in pretty much the same way as it has always been, in rows of information.

Newer social and collaborative tools, from activity streams to file sharing apps have been developed to make communication and collaboration easier, and to reduce and/or replace email. But while they are a great fit for certain tasks and activities, they haven’t displaced email to any great extent. Email volumes continue to multiple, and email overload continues to plague us.

You’ve Got Focus!

But what would happen if you began with the premise that email isn’t likely to go away? And that since people spend a lot of time in email, it should be a place where people like working and can be more productive, and that easily integrates with newer social and collaborative tools, instead of competing with them? In other words, how can you have an inbox that works for you, instead of the other way around?

This is the premise that IBM team has zeroed in on with IBM Verse. Verse is designed to help people focus on, find and act on the most important things in their inbox in a more intuitive and integrated fashion. Big Blue has invested $100 million to design the solution, which combines its cloud, analytics, social and security platforms.

Initially announced at IBM’s 2014 Connect conference (under the codename Mail Next), IBM Verse replaces those deadly rows and folders with a fresh, visual mental map to help you make sense of your inbox more quickly and easily (Figure 1). With one look at the IBM Verse dashboard, you can:

  • See what replies and tasks you owe others.
  • View meetings and free time.
  • Identify what’s most important in your inbox.
  • View your activity stream.
  • Move over a face to see that person’s emails, chats, invites and more all in one place.

Figure 1: IBM Verse Screenshot

Mail Next screen shot (9)

Source: IBM

From there, you can drill down to different layers to manage things, take action and stay on top of priorities (Figure 2). For instance, you can:

  •  Pull up and attach links to files and manage version control.
  • “Unlock” emails and turn them into social posts to share with a community.
  • Use team analytics to create social graphs to see how active different people are in a thread.
  • Create rules to sort, filter, mute and hide messages.

Focus on Experience, Not Features

IBM Design Thinking, IBM’s design framework for delivering great user experience to users. Is also taking a different approach to designing IBM Verse. Instead of testing the user interface after some (too often) wonky developers come up with it, product management, development and design all work together equally from the beginning.

Using tools such as IBM Digital Analytics (formerly Coremetrics) and other technologies from its portfolio, IBM can continually personalize and prioritize email and social activities for users and improve search. Over time, according to IBM, Watson will provide much of the analytics behind IBM Verse, with the goal of providing users with more insights and less overload from their email.

Coming Soon…

IBM Verse will debut as a cloud service (but IBM is prepping an on-premises version as well). Key sponsor and design advisory users have been reviewing, testing and helping co-create the solution since August. The solution will officially premiere in November as one of just eight IBM “Signature Moments,” putting IBM Verse on par with the IBM-Apple deal. After that, IBM Verse will enter beta mode, with general availability slated for March 2015.

IBM will provide Notes Domino users with a preview and transition to IBM Verse. Notes Domino users will be able to use IBM Verse in combinations with Notes Domino and with IBM Connections.

IBM will also offer a standalone Verse solution of Verse in a freemium model, to compete against Google Gmail and Microsoft Office 365. As an SMB analyst, the standalone version is of most interest to me as this is the first freemium IBM has offered. The freemium model will provide entrée to an app that almost every business needs, and has the potential to generate viral adoption for an IBM product—another first for IBM.

Will IBM Verse Measure Up At the Box Office?

But it’s not a slam-dunk. IBM Verse should provide Notes Domino users a more compelling case to stay the course instead of defecting to Microsoft, Google or other cloud-based mail alternatives. However, most Notes Domino users have a lot of applications, many internally developed, running on the platform. IBM Verse will need to be able to run, expose and interface with these apps to make the transition truly easy.

Meanwhile, as alluring as the IBM Verse demo and interface is, gaining traction outside of the Notes Domino installed base will be extremely challenging. For starters, many companies, especially small and medium businesses (SMBs), are already using cloud-based email and collaboration solutions. SMB Group research indicates that 49% of small (1-99 employees) and 40% of medium (100-999 employees) already use cloud-based email and collaboration solutions. Furthermore, the preference for cloud among SMBs planning to purchase or upgrade collaboration solutions is strong (Figure 2).

Figure 2: SMB Adoption and Plans for Email and Collaboration Solutions

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Source: SMB Group 2014 SMB Routes to Market Study 

In addition, IBM will need to make a strong case to business decision-makers and end-users, as well as to IT. IBM will not only need to create broad-based awareness for the solution, but convey why and how it’s different from other email solutions, and how it directly benefits users—aka “what’s in it for me” to move the needle.

And, while IBM Verse isn’t exactly a new category, it’s a very new approach that goes beyond traditional email. Users will need to develop a new mental map—and IBM will need to help them do so. Going to market with a freemium model will help, but it won’t be enough. In addition, IBM will need to:

  • Deeply internalize sponsor and beta user feedback, not only to influence solution development and design, but also to ensure that IBM Verse messaging, positioning and marketing reflects the user voice and experience.
  • Heavily socialize the IBM Verse concept across events, social media, communities, influencer groups, etc.
  • Maximize conversion of users that try IBM Verse to users that buy, or in the case of the freemium, stick with IBM Verse and make it their corporate mail system. It’s easy to get people to download free apps, but tough to get them to test them and tougher still to displace an existing solution with a new one.

As a solution, I believe that IBM Verse is launching with the right stuff, including.

  • As a cloud first solution, IBM Verse can tap into the growing number of companies that opt to start with or move to the cloud.
  • IBM’s design thinking team aligns with where users are today: helping people get more done, more quickly with fewer menus, mouse clicks and a more visual representation.
  • “Personal analytics” taps into user concerns about information overload, and the desire to manage email more intelligently.

But, only time will tell if IBM’s elevation of IBM Verse to Signature Moment status—and the marketing power attendant with this—will be enough to ensure that IBM Verse will become the blockbuster hit that IBM is hoping for.

This post was sponsored by IBM.

Dell’s Strategy to Bring Game-Changing Technologies to SMBs

This is the second post in a two-part blog series discussing Dell’s strategy to help SMBs better capitalize on technology. The first, A New Cloud Formation: Dell Cloud Marketplaceprovides perspectives from Dell World 2014. This second post, which is excerpted from SMB Group’s April 2014 report, Guiding Stars: Vendor Strategies to Bring Game-Changing Technology Trends to SMBs, offers additional insights into Dell’s approach to help SMBs capitalize on technology trends.

delllogoThe writing is on the wall for any business: With customers and prospects racing into the digital, mobile, and social future at breakneck speed, SMBs must proactively deploy technology to improve both business processes and the customer experience. SMBs that figure out how to use technology to stay ahead of their customers’ demands will thrive, while those that don’t face extinction.

But there are lots of vendors and solutions out there ready to help you on your journey, and one-size-fit all doesn’t apply in SMB. Is Dell a good fit for you? Read on for information and insights to help you decide.

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Dell’s Strategy to Bring Game Changing Technologies to SMBs

Dell sees cloud, mobile, social, analytics and other technologies converging towards the next pivotal tipping point, where IT will change the lives and experiences of nearly every industry, country and person on the planet.

Dell articulates its view on top technology trends somewhat differently than other vendors interviewed for this report. However, the same technology trends—cloud, analytics, social, mobile and security—are core to Dell’s top picks. Dell sees the following trends ushering in new wave of business transformation, similar or greater in scope to how the Internet and web affected businesses:

  1. People will increasingly rely on technology to connect, collaborate and accomplish tasks and goals. Embedded in user-friendly solutions, cloud, social and mobile technologies enable SMBs to connect, collaborate and engage anytime, anywhere to better serve their customers and to work more efficiently.
  2. IT is changing from a support function to becoming core most business operations, and business decision-makers are increasingly involved in IT decisions to ensure the business gets the value it needs from IT.
  3. Amidst the growing volumes of structured unstructured data, SMBs that have the rights tools to find the needles in the haystack and uncover useful, actionable information and insights will gain competitive and market advantages.
  4. As SMBs rely more on technology to run their businesses and engage with customers, partners, suppliers and others, taking measures to secure and protect data, information and access are increasingly essential to business viability.

Some of the tangible ways that Dell is helping SMBs capitalize on these changes include:

  • Becoming an über-cloud provider: Dell has been steadily expanding the Dell Cloud Partner Program to provide access and end-to-end support for offerings from multiple cloud vendors.
  • Offering open, private-cloud solutions, which should help give SMBs more confidence in using OpenStack as an alternative to proprietary IaaS and PaaS (infrastructure and platform as-a-service) alternatives.
  • Expanding portfolio of mobile management solutions, such as Enterprise Mobility Management, a unified mobile management solution to managed devices, apps, and content, and Secure Remote Access Gateway to protect endpoints.
  • New intellectual property gained from acquisitions such as SonicWALL, Quest, Boomi, Compellent and Force10 is skewed towards the SMB world. In fact, Dell views SMB and midmarket as an ideal focal point for development and acquisitions since it believes large organizations also want scalable solutions that are easier to deploy and use too.

Changes in SMB Technology Expectations and Behavior 

Fueled by the web, mobile and social access, Dell sees changes in how SMBs evaluate and shop for solutions. Today, SMBs are more prone to have done their homework before they come to the sales table. Armed with a greater understanding upfront, they are looking for vendors and partners that will listen to what they are trying to do and offer authentic, objective and knowledgeable guidance. In addition, Dell believes that simply doing the right things for people works. To that end, Dell prefers having its customers tell its story rather than Dell telling it. For example, Dell cites the tornado damage in Oklahoma City last spring, where Dell served as a first responder, as exemplifying its commitment to doing the right thing to earn customers’ faith in Dell.

Dell sees both the role of SMB IT and business decision-makers morphing. More frequently, line-of-business (LoB) managers are not only customers of IT departments, but also co-owners of IT. This means that IT staff must work harder to meet increasing demands, and become more educated and engaged in business operations and strategy than in the past. SMB IT personnel need more practical and actionable advice and support from vendors and their channel partners to juggle ongoing IT management with innovation.

SMBs are also scrutinizing “calculated risks” much more carefully. For instance, SMBs are interested in the cloud because of affordability and ease of access/use advantages, but want to ensure that cloud solutions are secure and reliable. SMBs are also more likely to factor business disruption into the cost/benefit analysis for any given solution. They are getting wiser about the perils of bad decisions and implementations, so the bar keeps getting higher to deliver solutions with less business disruption and faster time to value.

Finally, SMBs increasingly recognize that the technology-performance connection is real, and can be used to accelerate growth disrupt industry icons with innovation and agility. The perspective is summed up in Dell’s latest ad campaign. SMBs can use new technologies not only to reshape their existing businesses, but also to redefine the economics of an industry and expectation of the market.

However, one constant remains. Most SMBs need capitalize on these opportunities without putting themselves in financial or operational jeopardy. SMB budgets, IT staff and expertise aren’t often able to both maintain what they have and innovate within the window of opportunity. So Dell is focusing on designing, delivering, supporting and financing solutions that take these constraints into account.

Perspective: Dell as SMB Technology Catalyst

Dell’s journey to transform itself has been in progress for a few years. While on Wall Street’s watch, it wasn’t easy for Dell to recast its image from a transaction-oriented hardware company to an end-to-end solutions provider and trusted advisor.

However, Dell’s entrepreneurial heritage is once again alive and well. Michael Dell not only started the company in his dorm room when he was a 19-year old student at the University of Texas, but took it private in 2013 to gain control over its destiny again. With genuine DNA at the heart of Dell’s commitment to SMBs and entrepreneurs, Dell can take a longer-term view on return on investment in new technologies. This should enable it to launch more innovative and affordable cloud computing, mobile, social, analytics and security technologies geared to SMB requirements.

In addition, Dell prides itself on listening to its customers and creating a mutually beneficial dialogue. Dell’s Social Media Command Center is one of the best in the industry, and Dell’s SMB and partner outreach programs are extensive.

While Dell is still in the midst of its own transformation journey, its attitudes and actions when it comes to SMBs should help it to significantly broaden its status as a trusted advisor in this market.

 

A New Cloud Formation: Dell Cloud Marketplace

This is part one of a two-part blog series discussing Dell’s strategy to help SMBs better capitalize on technology. This first post provides perspectives from Dell World 2014. The second post, Dell’s Strategy to Provide Game Changing Technologies to SMBs, provides a detailed glimpse into Dell’s approach in the SMB market.

dell worldHow has Dell changed since Michael Dell took Dell private a year ago? A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend Dell World 2014 in Austin and find out. As I’ve written in past posts about prior Dell Worlds, the transformation has been underway for several years, since Michael Dell embarked on his strategy to transition Dell from a hardware-centric company to an end-to-end solutions provider.

As a private company, Dell is no longer obliged to disclose financial metrics. But, unleashed from Wall Street’s quarterly pressures, Dell appears to be making excellent progress on its goals. For instance, Dell has broadened its software and service portfolios, and claims significant growth in both areas. According to IDC, Dell is also increasing hardware market share no doubt aided in part by competitors HP and IBM. With IBM exiting the x86 server market, and HP’s recent decision to split itself into two companies (one focused on PCs and printers, the other on servers, software and services) Dell is the only vendor left that supplies an end-to-end desktop to data center portfolio. Meanwhile, Dell has evolved to become a significant force in the channel, with 40% of its sales now going through channel partners.

Dell’s New Cloud Marketplace

One of the most interesting announcements at the event was the beta launch of the Dell Cloud Marketplace, which distinguishes itself from many other cloud vendors by offering customers choice. In Dell’s brokerage model, the vendor provides customers with a one-stop shop from which they can select and manage cloud services from multiple vendors, including Amazon, Google, Joyent and Microsoft. The marketplace is built on technologies from Dell’s Cloud Manager, which Dell acquired from Enstratius in 2013. Key technology partners include Delphix, which supplies data migration services; Pertino, for cloud networking; and Docker, for container and portability services. Dell is also partnering with Foglight to provide developers with tools to improve cloud-based application performance.

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 7.27.13 PM

Dell Cloud Marketplace is tuned to the different needs of IT managers and developers. IT managers get a single console from which they can provision, manage and integrate private, public and hybrid could services. Meanwhile, developers can get instant, self-service access to cloud services. The concept appealed to conference attendees, with over 400 signing up for the beta the day Dell announced it.

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 7.27.46 PM

Dell’s vision for its Cloud Marketplace is similar to that of Priceline or Kayak in the travel business. Dell will aggregate, simplify and streamline shopping, selection, purchase and management across many cloud service options. Cloud offerings will initially be sold through Dell.com, Dell’s established, high volume direct sales channel. Over time, Dell is likely to implement reseller programs and possibly even white-label programs for channel partners.

Perspective

Perception is the hardest thing to change. With deep, successful roots in the hardware business, they company has been primarily regarded as a hardware vendor, even though its journey to become an end-to-end solutions provider has been underway for quite a while.

Dell’s move to become a broker of cloud services, highlight the acquisitions, research, development and determination that Dell has been investing in this quest. And, with cloud adoption now mainstream (Figure 1), Dell’s timing for the marketplace is on target as well. The cloud makes it easy for people to buy new services, and more difficult for IT to manage the wide variety of different services that are in play. Providing a solution that gives IT managers more visibility and governance capabilities, while at the same time offering users more choice, promises to help address this challenge.

Figure 1: SMB Cloud Adoption

cloud adopt

Source: SMB Group

However, due in part to the uniqueness of the model, Dell will need to invest in market education to articulate the capabilities and benefits of this new brokerage approach more clearly.

In addition, Dell must create a clear roadmap for what and when it will add to the marketplace to properly set market expectations. For instance, one of the customers I spoke to at the beta would like to use the marketplace to help him manage the wide range of file sharing and collaboration solutions that his users are buying.

Finally with Dell partners accounting for an increasing percentage of Dell sales, Dell will need to come up with an attractive approach to lure partners to resell Dell Cloud Marketplace services.

Disclosure: Dell paid for most of my travel expenses to attend Dell World. 

 

 

California Dreaming? Salesforce’s Dreamforce SMB Story  

This is part one of a two-part blog series discussing Salesforce.com’s strategy to help SMBs better capitalize on technology. This first post provides perspectives from several Salesforce SMB customers on how they are rethinking their business models and using technology to get ahead. The second post, Salesforce’s Strategy to Bring Game Changing Technologies to SMBs, provides a detailed glimpse into Salesforce.com’s approach in the SMB market.


dreamforce2014
Each year, the festivities at Dreamforce, Salesforce.com’s annual user event, intensify. At Dreamforce 2014, the entertainment ranged from musicians as diverse as Bruno Mars and the Beach Boys; politicians as similar as Hillary Clinton and Al Gore; Hawaiian blessings and hula dancers; and Salesforce’s erstwhile mascots, Chatty and SaaSy. Beanbag chairs, giant chessboards, free pedicabs, and lots of liquor-fueled parties added to the carnival-like atmosphere.

But there were also many Salesforce-related keynotes, led by CEO Marc Benioff, and hundreds of Salesforce sessions. Of course, I was most interested in the SMB keynote, led by

The Technology Trifecta

Salesforce sees SMBs as being uniquely suited to use cloud, mobile and social technologies to create new business models and to win customers over from larger, but often slower-moving businesses.

As discussed in SMB Group’s Guiding Stars: Vendor Strategies to Bring Game-Changing Technology Trends to SMBs report, Salesforce is in violent agreement with other technology vendors. The nine major vendors we interviewed for the report (including Salesforce) all view cloud, mobile and social as providing SMBs enormous opportunities to gain business advantages. With customers and prospects racing into the digital future at breakneck speed, SMBs that use technology to stay ahead of their customers will thrive, while those that don’t face extinction.

Though many technology vendors offer SMBs solutions to capitalize on these trends, Salesforce’s SVP of SMB, Tony Rodoni, and Desk.com VP, Layla Sekla of course touted Salesforce as best positioned to help SMBs harness technology to:

  • Scale their businesses with one integrated system
  • Gain better visibility into data
  • Engage customers in new ways

The Salesforce worldview (and that of the customers that joined to tell their stories) skew heavily toward what they described as a “typical silicon valley startup.” These are companies that want to conquer a large market using disruptive technology–ones that will launch and soon face a “tidal wave of demand.”

In reality, this segment represents only a tiny fraction of the SMB universe. But, from my perspective, they zeroed in on how businesses of all kinds can think about and apply technology to improve business outcomes.

Differentiate With Great Customer Service

The heat is on for all companies to provide a great customer experience for obvious reasons. Unhappy customers are likely to stop buying and share their dissatisfaction, costing your business money. Happy ones are likely to come back for more and recommend your business to friends and family. Social media of course, amplifies the influence of customer experience.

muncheryWith this in mind, Munchery is bringing new meaning to meals on wheels. Munchery provides meal delivery of “wholesome prepared dinners, handmade by top local chefs using only the best ingredients, for same-day delivery to your home or office.” In 6 months, its revenues have grown by 400%. Munchery credits its success to using providing customer support “that’s as good as the meals.” The company uses Desk.com to:

  • See what social networks their customers are using, and what they’re saying. Are there trends in what foods people want, such as kale or quinoa (they are in San Francisco!)? Once Munchery spots these trends it integrates them into marketing and meals.
  • Intake cases from Munchery’ mobile app to adjust orders on the fly and respond to them. Munchery can provide great service, and happy customers can also add an extra tip if they’d like. This responsiveness is helping Munchery turn customer problems into opportunities, and create evangelists.
  • Streamline internal communications. The company’s 100 drivers use Desk.com to communicate back to headquarters to help optimize routes and deliveries.

Outsmart The Competition By Re-thinking the Problem 

Accessing, analyzing and acting on data can give SMBs a big advantage over the competition. But building and managing infrastructure to do this takes a lot of time, money and expertise–all scarce resources for SMBs.

zenpayrollAccording to ZenPayroll’s CEO, one-third of SMBs get fined for inaccurate payroll. The three-year old start-up the entered the payroll market, which is dominated by big players such as ADP and Paychex, with a strategy to differentiate by giving users “delightful modern payroll” that works right on day one. While competitors position payroll as a chore, Zen thinks of payroll as employees getting paid and employers showing appreciation. It provides SMBs with a paperless, cloud-based, mobile-first solution in 97% of the U.S. Its 60 employees use Desk.com to solve support issues once, and then take proactive measures to ensure they aren’t repeated. Zen also uses Pardot to automate marketing, sales and nurturing and grow its business, which now processes more than $1 billion in payroll annually. Reeves’ advice to other business owners is to rethink the problem you’re tackling.

Personally Engage Customers

Getting the right message at the right time to customers at the right time is essential in today’s multi-channel world. In addition, the more personal the message, the less likely it is to end up in the spam filter. Salesforce introduced both a B2B and B2C customer to illustrate the importance of personalized engagement.

firstmileFirst Mile told the B2B story. When it launched 2 years ago, U.K-based First Mile saw the recycling market as overcharged and underserved. Its mission is to displace entrenched, inefficient competitors by making recycling easy and responsive. First Mile sees customer engagement as its key to its strategy, and uses innovative business practices and technology to power it. For instance, established competitors require long contracts, so First Mile requires no contracts. While competitors never call their customer except when its renewal time, First Mile makes 100 calls a day to get feedback. The company uses the Salesforce platform and apps to get and analyze recycling stats and help minimize attrition. First Mile’s field sales people also recently began using iPads and Salesforce to directly enter leads into Salesforce, “quadrupling the return on investment from field sales,” over the former double-entry paper and pen to Salesforce method. First Mile’s advice to other SMBs? There are lots of free or low-cost cloud solutions out there. Try the ones you think will help you to find out which ones will give you the return you need.
georgestreetOn the B2C side, George Street is putting a new twist on wedding photos and videos by connecting photographers to brides in 50 cities across North America. George Street handles everything but taking the photos or videos. For brides, George Street creates a personalized experience to ensure they have a great wedding photography experience. The company uses several Salesforce and AppExchange solutions, including Pardot, Salesforce and Chatter lead generation, sales and contracts, photographer and shot selection, notifications and sharing photos. George Street has also created a community for brides to talk about everything from cakes to dresses. It helps facilitated last-minute requests, such as a new shot request, with Chatter. Before they used Salesforce, they did a lot of this manually, but by developing a Salesforce app to automate the process, they’ve sped up the process and can provide a better experience. For instance, it used to take 7 days from a bride’s initial appointment with George Street to close a contract, now the average close time is 24 hours. Automation has helped them scale, increasing the number of weddings they handle by 250%. And, they’ve reduced case incidents by 200%. George Street’s guidance for other SMBs is to focus on delivering an exceptional experience. Automate back-end so your people can spend more time with clients, make them happy and generate boost referrals. Finally, if you’re using Salesforce, find a good developer to help you make the most of it.

Perspective

The writing is on the wall for any business: With customers and prospects racing into the digital, mobile, and social future at breakneck speed, SMBs must proactively deploy technology to improve both business processes and the customer experience. SMBs that figure out how to use technology to stay ahead of their customers’ demands will thrive, while those that don’t will face extinction.

But there are lots of vendors and solutions out there ready to help you on your journey. Is Salesforce right for you? Read Part 2 of this blog series, Salesforce’s Strategy to Bring Game Changing Technologies to SMBs, to help you decide.

Disclosure: Salesforce paid for most of my travel expenses to attend Dreamforce.

What Is Workforce Science, and How Can It Help Your Business?

 

Smarter workforceEngaged, motivated employees can be an organization’s greatest asset. When employees are fully involved in, committed to, and passionate about their work, productivity rises, and more employees are likely to become brand advocates who can help you grow the business.

But many factors come into play when it comes to developing a more engaged workforce. While talent management tools are important to helping you attract, energize and retain the best employees, it’s only part of the picture.

In the last post in this three-part series, sponsored by IBM Smarter Workforce, I look at how companies are using applicant tracking systems (ATS) and assessment solutions to better address these issues, and new developments in this area that promise to provide further enhancements.

Why Should Companies Care About Workforce Science?

Intuitively, we all know that employees can make or break a company. When employees are productive and dedicated, they can propel business growth. Conversely, disgruntled or even apathetic employees can grind business growth to a halt.

Research confirms this intuition is spot on. IBM has found a strong correlation between employee engagement at the business unit level and key performance indicators, including customer metrics such as higher profitability, productivity, and quality, as well as lower employee turnover, absenteeism, theft and safety incidents.

But how much do most businesses really know about their employees? While many organizations are going to great lengths to understand and analyze customer and prospect expectations, most don’t really know much about what makes their employees tick. For instance, how does a person prefer to learn? What are their talents? How much do they care about their jobs?

The truth is that most companies still use subjective criteria to make many decisions in this area. For instance:

  • Only 56% of companies use an assessment as part of the hiring process. (Aberdeen)
  • 77% of HR professionals worldwide do not know how its workforce potential is affecting the company’s bottom line1 and less than half of organizations surveyed use objective talent data to drive business decisions.(SHL)
  • 86 percent of companies say they have no analytics capabilities in the HR function. Moreover, 67 percent rate themselves as “weak” at using HR data to predict workforce performance and improvement.(Bersin by Deloitte)

When you consider that businesses and their employees basically share a two-way profit relationship, it’s hard to understand why companies have been so slow to focus on this problem.

How Workforce Science Improves Talent ROI

talent lifeccyleWorkforce science helps businesses solve for this by combing behavioral science with normative data, analytics, consulting, and processes to determine what it takes to build an engaged workforce, and create the “systems of engagement” to execute on it.

Particularly as the recession wanes and the economy picks up, more companies are starting to get interested in improving their effectiveness through workforce science. With the competition for top talent intensifying, organizations are looking to use the predictive powers of workforce science to help ensure that their investments will pay off throughout the talent management life cycle.

For instance:

  • Predictive hiring. By looking for patterns across organizational, unit, HR, and external data, companies can hire more top performers by identifying the talents and skills that are critical to high performance in different areas, and creating a process to hire candidates that most closely align with these characteristics. In addition, analytics are also used to determine what characteristics are a better cultural fit with the company, so you can more readily identify candidates who will fit, be more productive, and who are more likely to stay with the company for a longer time period.
  • Predictive workforce readiness.To close talent gaps today, and develop the talent you need for tomorrow, you need to be able to accurately identify the talent you have, and take steps to fill the gaps. This starts with mapping talent requirements to key strategic objectives, identifying linkages between organizational roles and key competencies, assessing employee competencies, and determining what hiring, training, or actions you need to take to close the gaps. For example, a company may determine that the existing workforce supplies the electrical engineering competencies they need today, but much of the talent is concentrated in the baby boomer age group, and they will face a deficit in 5 years as these boomers retire. With data-based analysis, the company can take proactive steps well in advance to fill the gap.
  • Predictive retention. All companies want to reduce employee turnover costs. Being able to anticipate why top performers might leave, and taking action to stop it can help you reduce these costs. But how well do you really understand what’s causing employee attrition? For instance, a media company believed that long commutes were the key reason for high turnover in its administrative ranks. However, analysis showed that employee family obligations, such as caring for children or aging parents, was a much more important reason. By determining the real case instead of relying on a hunch, the company could take the right corrective actions to reduce turnover.

Perspective

Talent is the lifeblood of any organization, fueling the innovation required to grow and thrive in today’s hyper-competitive world. The truth is, however, that most companies are just starting to think about putting science, solutions and processes in place in this area.

Because taking this type of analytical, data-driven approach to talent management is so new, most companies will want to keep the following in mind:

  • Start with the basics. It is probably overwhelming to even think about standardizing your existing human resources data, bringing in normative data and applying new tools and processes on a corporate basis. Start by focusing on a few key problems, such as a skills gap you know exists but can’t quantify, or figuring out why turnover in a key function is too high.
  • Bring real people into the process. Don’t get so carried away with the science that you forget to talk to people in the trenches upfront in the process. This will help ensure that you are not overlooking any possibilities, and are testing the right hypotheses when you do apply analytical tools.
  • Keep the big picture in focus. Although it’s often necessaryand even advantageousto start small, continually reassess how more accurate insights into your human resources and talent information can help you improve business performance.
  • Find a vendor you trust to help guide you. Although this is still a relatively new area, best practices are emerging. Vendors with deep expertise and experience can help you avoid pitfalls and accomplish your goals more quickly and effectively.

IBM’s workforce science solutions combine 25 years of behavioral expertise, analytics and talent management solutions with the largest content library and normative database in the human capital industry. To learn more, visit http://www.ibm.com/smarterworkforce.

This is the third and final post in a three-part blog series written by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM. The series examines talent management solutions and trends.

 

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