I shared a pint the other day with Bob Suh
, chief technology strategist for the giant consulting company, Accenture
. This company creates supply chain systems for the U.S. Air Force and sells more IBM computers into corporations than IBM itself. The firm knows complex technology, so I thought I could pick Suh's brain for a few pointers for small business and pass them along.
To my surprise, Suh described his best clients as stuck in a rut. He told me that, technologically, many large firms are in the "hospice business" of nursing old, out-of-date computer installations slowly into that good night. For the small business, my takeaway was there's not much to learn from them except what not to do.
In fact, I think these giant firms, with their one-letter stock ticker symbols, have a lot to learn from small businesses--the millions of companies that constantly do more with less, live by their wits and not their inertia, and actually make up the backbone of the U.S. economy. Here are some lessons Suh says big business can learn from small business.
The home office is the new corner office
Individual workers, left to their own devices, will create work spaces that make them the most productive and happy. Bad business tools don't survive in the wild of small-business computing, while in a corporation, mediocre technology takes years to die. Look at the clunky, slow green-screen computer terminals that airline reservation agents were using until only recently, for example. Big business, Suh says, should pay attention to which technologies their employees and contractors are using in their home offices and see if they can be applied to corporate solutions. For example, PDAs such as the PalmPilot first came to corporate America through end users, not as part of large planned rollouts of handheld technology.
One of the biggest differences between big business and small business is that small business doesn't have cash to invest in long-term technology bets. While a large business can look at the ROI (return on investment) of technology over years, a small business generally cares more about immediate cash flow. Small businesses worry about making payroll, not impressing shareholders.
Have any tips from your small business you'd like to share with big business?
In other words, small businesses avoid sinking money into big technology investments. Large businesses still buy a lot--a lot of software, a lot of hardware to run it on, and a lot of networking equipment to tie it all together. Small businesses are learning that it can make sense to let somebody else maintain their systems, especially servers that don't have to be located in the business itself. A typical example is the customer relationship service, Salesforce.com. The money and resources small businesses save by not maintaining technology products on their own funnels right back into the business, instead of into maintaining an infrastructure.
The value of blogs
Suh told me that one of the biggest challenges in business is knowledge transfer. Individuals within in a large corporation may have valuable and untapped specialized knowledge, but nobody knows who knows what. He says he's been impressed with blogs as a tool for transmitting business "war stories" that others can learn from.
Perhaps the corporate newsletter will give way to the corporate blog soon (just after I wrote the first draft of this column, the HR department at CNET started a newsletterlike blog for employees). Workgroups and teams in businesses could use blogs (or their even more freewheeling cousins, wikis) to report progress to each other.
Kids these days--they know what they're doing
Today's children are tomorrow's employees and leaders, and when it comes to communication and social networking, they're tapped in to an extent that older workers are not. Smaller companies--those without industry veterans at their helm--seem to be more open to the way younger employees use technology, even if the owners of the companies might be Luddites. Suh recommends watching how teenagers and college students interact and seeing which tools (beyond the obvious, such as instant messaging) can work inside corporations.
Personally, I'm leaning toward Skype as the big breakthrough in corporate communication, since it combines the presence indicator of instant messaging with a thoroughly modern telephony application.
When I sat down with Suh, I was expecting to get schooled in the ways of big business, but instead I found myself talking to a man humbled by what small mom-and-pop businesses are doing with technology tools today. And because of that, I have more hope for big business than I did before.