When asked how he thinks about computer networking, one small business owner replied: “As little as possible, right up there with data backups and virus protection.” That’s a fair answer for two reasons. First, you do have to think about networks at least a little, because companies run on information. If you don’t agree, think how far your company would go without your accounts receivable or your customer list. Second, like data backups and virus protection, your company network should just work. You shouldn’t have to think about it much. However, there is another way to think about your networking, and that’s where the profit, hence fun, comes in.
Most companies start out with very basic networking. As soon as you attach a printer to your first desktop computer, you have a simple network. As companies add desktop computers, they graduate fairly quickly to a peer-to-peer local area network (LAN), wireless, wired or both, that allows the computers to share devices such as printers and scanners and allows users to access files on each other’s desktops (assuming the other user’s computer is up and running) or on a dedicated PC that’s used as a print and file server. If the office has a shared Internet connection, they’ve invested the $50 to $100 to get a router with firewall software to protect against unauthorized access from outside the office network.
This is the point where a business owner has the network in place and just wants it to work. But this is precisely the point to start thinking of the network as a tool to transform your company, to make it more responsive, more competitive, and ultimately, more profitable. Think of it this way. Information is your most valuable asset, the lifeblood of your company. The better it flows, the more productive your people can be, the better you can make decisions, and the more responsive you can be to your customers and to the market. And if information is the lifeblood, your network is the circulatory system and your server is the heart that pumps information to where it’s needed.
So, instead of thinking about the network as little as possible, think about where better information flow could make your business healthier, and how to use your network to get it there. Consider the possibilities.
Inside your office: If information is sitting on separate desktops around your company, it’s time to get it moving and working for you. What if your staff never had to wait for information: how much more productive might they be? What if everyone on the service desk had access to all a customer’s order history and current order, account information, and any trouble reports. What if your marketing people had current order information all the time, so they could see how a promotion on your web site is working and tune pricing or other terms for best results?
You already have a network. To take your business to the next level of information flow, you can centralize business information in a database on a more powerful server, so your whole staff has full-time access to the information they need. Applications such as customer relationship management (CRM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) help bring information together so that it can be used by multiple users and across business processes. So, for example, a customer order can be viewed by staff in sales, production shipping, finance, and customer service, allowing everyone to coordinate their efforts and respond quickly to that customer’s needs. Centralizing and integrating information in this way is a big step, but it’s simpler and less costly than you might think. Your current IT advisor or system integrator can help you identify requirements, choose hardware and software, and set it up. And many companies find that the investment pays for itself in a matter of months.
To employees outside your office: Whether it’s your sales force in the field, staff in remote offices, or just employees on the road, your staff can be more productive if they have access to information. Once your data is centralized on a server, you can set up remote access so that employees can log in to your network and get the information they need.
The biggest issue for remote access is security: how to give employees access to your systems through your firewall, while keeping unauthorized visitors out. You could have remote employees dial in to your network and just enter a password, but password protection alone is easy for computer hackers to break, and dial-up requires a dedicated line for each remote user who is logged in. Instead, many companies choose to set up a virtual private network (VPN) because it provides better security and is a more cost-effective way to support more than one remote user at a time. A VPN uses special security procedures to create a private network on top of a public phone network or over the public Internet, so the number of users is limited only by the capacity of your office’s Internet connection. VPN solutions range from free downloadable software (with limited features, limited number of users, and no support) to hardware “appliances” that attach to your networks, or hosted VPN services. The right solution for your company depends on the amount of protection you need, the number of remote users, and your budget.
To customers, vendors and business partners: Why would you want to give outsiders access to your business information? Because it can save you money and help your bottom line. For instance, letting your customers look up order status for themselves can free customer support and sales staff for other work. Using supply chain management (SCM) software, you can automatically send your suppliers orders when your inventory of products or materials runs low, avoiding delays in production and sales so you can book revenue faster. Or you could let resellers access the latest product and pricing information any time, so they can sell your products more effectively.
You don’t want or need to give these outside parties access to your internal networks, but you do want to share selected information without making it available to the general public. (Or to your competitors!) Supply chain management solutions are designed to provide some level of secure communication between you and your suppliers. The most common way to provide self-service information to customers, resellers, and business partners is through an “extranet.” Besides creating private web sites (also sometimes called “portals”), extranets have features for web publishing so, for example, your marketing people could publish a new reseller promotion on the web site without web programming help. They also have features for “targeting” information to specific users, so that resellers or customers in one region or category could see a different promotion or pricing structure than those in another.
Like VPNs, extranet solutions come in different forms, from software on your internal network to hosted services. And, like VPNs, the best solution depends on your company’s needs and budget.
Granted, it’s not fun to think about the mechanics of setting up a network, internal or external. But for the most part, you don’t have to. Once you’ve figured out your goals and requirements, your IT advisor or system integrator can make it happen. Your job is to consider the possibilities, to envision your company running better, competing more successfully, achieving more profit. Now, isn’t that fun?