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THE PRINCIPLES OF MODERN IT FOR THE AMBITIOUS BUSINESS

Steve O'Neill
Steve O'Neill

Steve O’Neill

Small and medium sized business owners and managers up and down the country have been given the credit and responsibility for returning the UK to sustained economic growth. The Government has made a great deal of its efforts to cut red tape to support small and medium enterprise (SME) business expansion, and there seem to be hints of economic recovery emerging as we come into 2014. In this context, then, are the worries of business leaders a thing of the past?

 Of course not. As both the Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Bank of England have commented, recovery “takes time.” We’re in the middle of a process and this context sets the parameters for concern for all business leaders: ones of managing growth, risk, competitiveness, agility, resilience and profitability in an increasingly aggressive global marketplace.

 The role of IT for recovery and growth

What space, then, does Information Technology occupy in this context? I would argue it fulfils three key roles:

 First, IT is an enabler of modern business practice. Whether this is in delivering e-commerce or in streamlining financial reporting, modern IT is vital in ensuring productivity and competitiveness.

 Second, IT increasingly is the product of a modern business. Amazon and Tesco both built website infrastructure to support their direct sales e-commerce models. Today, both businesses sell their technology platform and brand to other businesses.

 Third, IT enables new business models. Businesses may find that the information they obtain as part of one business process is valuable to another – whether this is automotive telemetry data that can be sold to insurers, anonymized patient data that can be sold to actuarial or pharmaceutical companies, or customer insight data that informs new marketing and sales practices.

 Buying in IT in this context then, becomes more challenging than ever before. There’s endless choice and business leaders – who may have limited interest in or knowledge of IT – have to face decisions on the level of control they want over their infrastructure, the degree to which it is secured, the skills they need to maintain it and innovate from it.

 Not investing in IT? Not an option. As private equity investor Luke Johnson commented in the FT recently – the spectre of flawed IT ought to scare us all. Indeed, Mr. Johnson credits underinvestment at the heart of the issues following his backing of a traditional retail business. Mr. Johnson wrote: “…its technology strategy was deeply flawed and it suffered from a huge under-investment in systems. It had not built its own ecommerce platform. It totally lacked any form of digital marketing presence. Its electronic point of sale systems were useless; its stock-keeping and logistics software and hardware were redundant; its management accounting was in disarray.”

 The principles of IT investment

What, then, are the practical principles of IT investment that SME business leaders need to be aware of?

  • Manage your risk
  • The more central IT becomes to your business, the more dramatic the consequences of a technology failure. A retailer who loses e-commerce capabilities during a flash-sale, promotion (a Groupon deal, for instance) could lose out on substantial revenues. The more regulated your industry, the more control you’re likely to need over your IT. Data protection requirements, for example, can be extremely stringent about customer data in different contexts. And indeed, the more sensitive your industry or your supply chain, the bigger target you are for cyber criminals; for instance, betting firms or retailers that carry credit card information.
  •  This is one of the reasons that, despite the enormous hype, very few businesses’ IT processes are moving to the ‘public cloud.’ Analysts forecast only 4% of these processes will move onto these public Internet services, such as those sold by Google and Amazon. Most organisations of any scale prefer what’s called a ‘private’ or ‘hybrid’ cloud, entirely or primarily using business-owned IT that has made available, securely, over the internet. It limits their risk, gives them the ability to build in additional redundancy and resilience, and avoids complex questions around ‘data sovereignty,’ privacy laws and the like.
  •  Be aware of the technology context in which you’re operating
  •  Today’s society is increasingly characterised by the collision of four major technologies: internet based services or the ‘cloud,’ mobile technology providing ubiquitous internet access, social networks facilitating new connections between consumers and businesses and the large repositories of data underpinning it all.  Some have called this the ‘third platform’ of computing.
  •  For all businesses that are looking to grow in this context, the implications of these technologies need to be taken into account. Even a small chain of hairdressers could stand to benefit from capitalising on online appointment booking, digital and social remarketing to their customer base, using data insights to manage stock, stylists and prioritise traditional marketing. For services and manufacturing businesses, the implications may be even more profound.
  •  Understanding the context of this third platform on some level opens you up to digital creativity that may help accelerate your business to a new level.
  •  Ensure that whatever your IT, you have the agility to change
  • Modern IT has to flex to the requirements of modern business practice. Things simply move faster today than they did before; if you decide to bring a new product, service or promotion to market, you can’t wait for servers to be deployed, developers to become available, for code to be compiled. New, agile methods of web development, and IT that is defined by software, rather than discreet and rather more cumbersome physical hardware and software, is giving businesses of all sizes the ability to react to change far more rapidly than ever before.
  •  Prepare for the Internet of things
  •  There have been jokes about ‘internet connected fridges’ going around since 2000, but the potential for the internet of things is far greater than this. If a manufacturer of widgets collects anonymised usage data from their products, they can use real-time customer insight to design the next generation of products in precise alignment with customer needs, use sensor data to anticipate the need for repairs ahead of failure and deliver customer service a cut above the competition, or market or remarket to customers who might need a replacement widget. And the widget needn’t be significantly high tech – internet connected sensors could be embedded in your boiler; in your PC; in your toaster or PVR, and could set you apart from the competition in a world of hyper connected consumers and smartphones.
  • There’s no question that the information technology shaping the context for modern business growth is complex, but it needn’t be overwhelming. Indeed, the alternative, as Mr Johnson noted, is complete failure. So the leaders of any ambitious business needs to educate themselves to the point where they can have meaningful conversations with their colleagues, suppliers and consultants and set themselves up with the capacity for growth in the digital context of the third platform of computing.

Business

Return to work: Flexibility, preparation and communication are key

Return to work: Flexibility, preparation and communication are key 36

By Matt Weston, Managing Director, Robert Half UK

As lockdown restrictions ease for the foreseeable future, conversations across the business world are starting to turn to how employers can safely and seamlessly prepare for their workforce to return to the office.

Research from Robert Half has found that over half (54%) of employees are worried about working in close proximity to their colleagues, while a similar proportion are eager to return to the office due to loneliness working from home (45%) or concerns about missing out on career opportunities (30%).

Unsurprisingly, after everything companies and their employees have done to successfully adapt their operations and working practices to social distancing rules over the last few months, immediately returning to the old ways of working will likely neither be sensible or practical. With safety being the key priority for the ‘new normal’ of office life – communication, flexibility and preparation should be the main focus areas for employers.

With this in mind, what are the challenges and opportunities that employees anticipate as they prepare for the return to work, beyond government and industry supplied health and safety best practice? Furthermore, how can employers best support their staff during this period?

Keep people at the heart of change

It is important to recognise that your workforce has been working through an intense period of uncertainty and change for months, which can be incredibly unsettling. On top of this, working for weeks in isolation without the usual physical interactions with team members could be potentially detrimental to employee engagement and mental wellbeing.

Having adjusted to keep staff connected with one another from a distance with virtual team building exercises, video calls and daily check-ins, as teams begin working in hybrid models with some in the office and others remote, staff engagement will need to adapt again.

Managing people with greater sensitivity and maintaining positivity throughout will be crucial. To help instil a sense of normality and engagement, encourage maximum collaboration between individuals (in accordance with social distancing rules), and make sure teams feel part of company goals and opportunities through regular meetings and communication – no matter their location.

Continuing to invest in technology and offering flexibility will also be important to ensuring that people can continue to work remotely or on-site, either in accordance with their own wishes or as part of your staggered return-to-office plan.

Communicate, communicate, communicate (and listen)

Reassuring staff that they are able to safely return to the office will require continuous communication. From expectations of the physical office, to expectations of how to operate within hybrid teams, these new expectations and new workplace requirements should be communicated to all staff clearly to avoid confusion.

Regular email updates, updates on the company’s intranet and social media channels, as well as frequent town hall meetings (either online or in a smaller setting) could be key elements of an effective communications approach.

Also, consider a feedback channel to allow staff within the team to offer thoughts on their experience of returning to the office and any suggestions on improving the process. Whether on a company-wide basis or a team-by-team approach, schedule regular check-ins to engage with employees’ questions and concerns.

Maintaining open communication channels with your team will be essential for keeping up employee morale and ensuring clarity. For example, if some employees aren’t comfortable with coming to the office every day, then they should have plenty of opportunities to voice their concerns and have them dealt with promptly, respectfully and fairly.

Staggered return-to-office planning

Depending on the size of business and density of office space, maintaining home working arrangements across teams on an alternating basis could make it easier to implement safe social distancing. This involves select teams working remotely while others work on-site on any given day.

An alternating approach to remote working might also reduce the risk of staff feeling pressured or overwhelmed by an immediate return to the office five-days-a-week. After all, some families might be juggling temporary disruptions to childcare arrangements and public transport systems will likely become crowded again. So, a transitionary period will help everyone adjust to post-lockdown office working.

Finally, if you have developed your technology infrastructure to facilitate remote working, you would do well to continue to leverage these new capabilities as in all probability, a mixture of remote and at-office work will be needed for some time.

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Business

Contis enters RBS Capability and Innovation Fund bid seeking £35 million for disruptive SME growth strategy  

Contis enters RBS Capability and Innovation Fund bid seeking £35 million for disruptive SME growth strategy   37

Leading payments provider, Contis, has applied for two grants from the RBS & BCR Alternative Remedies Package, totalling £35 million.  

Unlike most applicants who will deploy funds through a single brand, Contis is taking a completely different approach. The funding will be used to drive fintech innovation in the UK by developing an off the shelf, B2B electronic and card payment technology platform for SMEs. With Contis’ powerful tech stack and regulated status, this will empower hundreds of fintechs to support the SME market with groundbreaking technologies, payments and lending capabilities. Contis today services over 800,000 consumer accounts, 14,500 business accounts and processes £4bn in transactions per year, demonstrating a proven track record.   

UK businesses are facing a challenging economic environment with the impacts of Covid-19 and Brexit. As large corporations and entire sectors are affected, SMEs will play a vital role in the recovery. Contis’ approach is completely disruptive, offering three channels to maximise support for SMEs and sole traders, through three unique brands, all powered by APIs from Contis’ modular and configurable engine. 

1.       Canvas for Business 

Contis is a super-vendor in the world of fintech, offering payments through proven banking rails and card scheme capabilities including issuing pre-paid, debit and virtual cards. They’re linked to digital delivery like Apple Pay and Google Pay, and a trusted tech stack that boasts 99.99% uptime.  

With funding from the Capability and Innovation Fund (CIF), Contis’ technology and regulated services will be made available to the whole fintech community, enabling them to provide dedicated SME accounts with the latest leading-edge capabilities delivered via Contis’ wholly owned, secure, cloud-based technology and apps. Contis’ solution has a firm eye on the need for SMEs to compete internationally, particularly after Brexit, and offers FX integration as standard.  

Canvas for Business will increase competition by providing fintechs serving the SME market with technology that outstrips the big banks. Contis will also provide credit referencing capabilities and empower fintechs to lend to their SME client base through Contis’ own credit licence. Without the constraints of legacy systems, it will enable simple connectivity to accounting and payments solutions, as well as to unlimited future innovations.  

2.       Engage for Business 

Over 150 Credit Unions currently use Contis’ Engage service and technology, and hold an estimated £400 million in undeployed cash reserves. Developed with CIF funding, Engage for Business will enable Credit Unions to launch business accounts and payments products for the first time, and allow excess funds to be redeployed in the SME sector through business support loans. This will revolutionise access to funding for sole traders and small businesses. 

3.       Freedom for Business 

With CIF funding, Contis will also offer large scale SMEs a direct-to-market solution where Contis holds the relationship and provides a bespoke offer to meet the business’ exact needs. 

Contis’ application to the Capability and Innovation Fund is focused on creating the widest possible impact for UK SMEs by fulfilling their accounts & payments needs and driving innovation in SME financial services. 

Through the grant, Contis will empower over 200 fintechs and Credit Unions to provide credit, simplify payments integration into everyday business needs, offer digital credit referencing, provide budgeting tools to SMEs, enable automated payments, give predictive insight on cash flow, provide rewards to SMEs on spending, and much more. 

Peter Cox, Founder and Executive Chairman of Contis said: “Our mission is to democratise payments and financial services for all SMEs, so they’re spoilt for choice with innovative and affordable solutions that meet their exact needs. Our approach, based upon proven technologies, will broaden and disrupt the services available to SMEs far beyond the capabilities of existing providers such as the big banks.  

“By driving competition and innovation, while improving the availability of funding, our approach will increase the services on offer to SMEs and make them more affordable, therefore becoming easier for every entrepreneurial person with vision to run their own businesses.” 

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Business

Four years of digital transformation in four weeks: UK lockdown puts pressure on brands to digitally deliver

Four years of digital transformation in four weeks: UK lockdown puts pressure on brands to digitally deliver 38

Nearly a third (32%) of consumers would switch providers if a brand’s website is unavailable for more than 24 hours

A study released today reveals the scale of omni-channel pressure brands now faced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, as consumers flock to apps and websites to as the priority destination to transact with brands.

The UK has experienced a huge leap in use of online services thanks to lockdown, with the public appearing to have less concern for the availability of a brand’s physical location. Research by Sungard Availability Services (Sungard AS) uncovers a “window of availability” that UK businesses now have before consumer loyalty changes:

  • If a brand’s website is down for 24 hours – 32 percent of consumers would switch provider
  • If a brand’s app is down for 24 hours – 28 percent of consumers would switch provider
  • If a physical store is closed for 24 hours – 20 percent of consumers would switch provider

The results by industry paint an interesting picture of the availability timeframes brands are expected to adhere to:

  • For online retailers, excluding grocery retailers – 23 percent of consumers would switch provider if they could not access online services for 12 hours, rising to over a third (34 percent) after 24 hours
  • For financial services and entertainment streaming platforms – 21 percent of consumers would switch provider after 12 hours, rising to 33 percent after 24 hours
  • In the case of online grocery shopping – 20 percent would switch provider after 12 hours, rising to one third 33 percent after 24 hours

The findings also highlight that as digital reliance increases, so will consumer expectations towards availability in the future. Over the coming two years, a third (33 percent) of consumers expect online financial services to always be available, rising to 35 percent for streaming services.

“UK consumers have become reliant on the constant availability of online services, and lockdown has only served to heighten this,” comments Chris Huggett, SVP, EMEA at Sungard AS. “What used to be a choice between physical and digital has now firmly accelerated into digital environments across various industries. As online worlds continue to outpace bricks and mortar as the face of businesses, ensuring constant availability and clear communications on downtime will be key for brands to build trust and loyalty.

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