In just a few short years, cloud computing has moved from buzzword to business advantage. “There are very clear benefits to small businesses,” says Raouf Boutaba, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science.
“Outsourcing the IT [infrastructure] to the cloud means no upfront investment cost—you just pay as you go. In addition, the cloud offers flexibility, scalability and reliability,” adds Boutaba.
There’s a lot of incentive to make the leap, but where do small businesses start? Here are five ways small businesses can tap the cloud:
While cloud-based HR solutions are typically used by larger organizations, there are benefits to small businesses, says Mira Perry, research manager, enterprise applications at market intelligence firm IDC Canada. “Payroll, for example, would be a great one for small businesses to use to help reduce the workload on their accounting and HR staff,” she says.
For recruiting, there are solutions that help manage job postings and applications. “That could be a real boon for organizations with a single HR person or an HR person who’s covering multiple responsibilities,” says Perry.
Customer Relationship Management
With CRM in the cloud, businesses can easily keep track of their customers without having to install and maintain an in-house CRM system. For small businesses, it can also be a big time-saver.
For example, if they have an e-book available for download on their website, “rather than having an email coming to them directly, the contact information can be stored in the cloud,” says Maureen McCabe, founder and principal of small business marketing consultancy McCabe Marketing. “That’s really helpful because there’s typically not the time to organize the information as it comes in.”
Cloud CRM also allows staff to access the database at any time, from any device, and ensures data is protected.
Small businesses should consider saying “hello” from an internet-based phone system. “Small businesses can get an enterprise-level phone service for a few dollars a month, and you don’t have the complexity of having a phone system on premise,” says Stuart Crawford, president of IT marketing services firm Ulistic.
Cloud-based video conferencing allows small business owners to have face-to-face communication with staff, clients or suppliers, without having to meet in a boardroom.
One big benefit to small business owners is they can work from anywhere, as well as hire the best person for the job regardless of where they’re located, says Crawford.
There’s a host of software that allows small businesses to manage projects—no white boards or long email threads necessary. Some key functions include the ability to create schedules, assign tasks and track performance.
“When you have a cloud-based solution, it facilitates greater collaboration, provided people are willing to go there,” says IDC Canada’s Perry. “If you’re a small business with people who are a bit more adverse to new technologies, it’s going to be problematic.”
However, if employees are keen to use the technology and collaborate online, cloud-based project management can be quite effective, she adds. That’s especially true with mobile-enabled technologies because people can check in on the fly and not be tethered to their desktop or laptop.
Online file syncing (which backs up and syncs files on any device) has seen tremendous growth in adoption, according to Perry. Having documents online allows people to share and collaborate more easily “and you don’t necessarily need the large governance that you would have in a big organization,” she says. “It could just be three people saying ‘we need to work together more, let’s put our files online so that we can work on them simultaneously.’”
Cloud-based file storage also ensures data is properly protected and backed up. Crawford notes that some people have concerns about security, but he believes their data is more secure in the cloud than it is on-premises. “Those [cloud] companies have invested heavily in the proper infrastructure and security systems to make sure that your information is properly protected,” he says. “There are fly-by-night organizations in the cloud too, so I always advise people to do your homework before you invest in one.”
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