The mantra from every survey of IT managers in the past three years has been consistent: get more from less.
In IT terms, productivity means squeezing technology assets until their pips squeak, making sure that systems and services are available on an as-needed basis to staff and customers, and knowing that they are being used in the most intelligent way.
In earlier generations, IT tended to be a closed process where services were available so long as staff could connect to mainframe systems.
The advent of personal computers and local area networks made computing resources more broadly available, and remote access through modems gave some staff access to corporate computing services even when away from the office.
In the past 10 years matters have advanced quickly, with the internet offering users a window onto company data via web browsers, and mobile communications making those services available across Europe without the need for a physical connection.
The problem is that this democratising of capabilities has also created a recipe for potential chaos, abuse and misuse. With budgets tight, attention has turned to smarter buying and making better use of existing resources.
Making it automatic
Automation is key to achieving productivity gains. The first step towards achieving productivity is to assess where manual processes can be phased out.
Many small businesses still use telephone, postal services and fax machines where email would be more practical, quicker, cheaper and more secure, for example.
Output costs are also often a cost centre with standalone printers and copiers chewing up time when today's multifunction devices allow printing, copying and scanning using the same shared device on the network.
Data storage can also be a problem. Having a centralised storage strategy is not only a safer approach than allowing every user to rely on their own personal storage space, it is a far more productive approach that allows data to be shared and backed up on a regular basis.
Open all hours
Before the advent of the internet in business, most companies were satisfied with services being available during office hours, but the expectation today is of non-stop access to office applications, email and data.
Notebook PCs have made a huge difference, allowing users to have continuous access to spreadsheets, databases and other office applications.
Until recently, the significant price gap between notebook PCs and their desktop equivalents deterred many buyers. But with prices for notebooks falling to little more than desktops, more firms are choosing to issue a mobile PC to staff.
Also, today's notebook PCs come with large screens and can be plugged into desktop monitors and keyboards, so investing in both a desktop and mobile system is no longer necessary.
Wireless access to applications and services are also helping. PDAs and smartphones that let users connect while in train stations, taxis, hotel lobbies and airports are changing the way we connect to voice and data services.
So-called always-on communications, such as GPRS (2.5G) and 3G technologies that maintain a permanent link rather than needing dialup access, fit neatly into this model, getting rid of the annoying wait for connections and unpredictable call cost tariffs.
Also helping the trend are Bluetooth, a short-range wireless technology being built into phones, PDAs and notebook PCs, and Wi-Fi, a way to connect at high speed to the internet and email which is finding a home in notebook PCs, PDAs and add-in cards.
Remote access links via virtual private networks that maintain security by lettings users tunnel through to local area networks are also becoming popular.
These technologies are useful in making use of time on the road or between meetings by opening up an opportunity to update sales records, schedules and address books, or to catch up on email.
They can also be used to expedite sales, service or field visits. A sales executive could find out which products can be offered at a discount, or a field service representative could find out whether a certain part is available and how much it costs.
Making the net work
Making full use of the ubiquity of the internet can also result in savings. Intranets - think of them as private internet locations - can be used to store company information that is frequently accessed by staff.
This might include human resources databases, calendars and knowledge systems containing 'how-to' information and areas of specialist knowledge among staff.
Conversely, extranets - intranets that are exposed to certain outside partners such as suppliers and trade customers - offer a way to open up company information to selected outsiders.
Of course, productivity is also about usability in hardware and software design so that users can quickly get to the information they need. Well-designed products and user interfaces will take you so far, but investing time in training is invariably time well spent.
This need not be in the form of an expensive add-on to a computer reseller's service, but can often be conducted in-house via an office 'guru' supplemented by a knowledge base, a database of information that is available to all on an intranet, or simply by having data sent out to users by email.
In the end, productivity is about exploiting technology to the full. Examining current processes and technology resources will release the power of hardware and software and offer savings in time and money.
SEVEN STEPS TO PRODUCTIVITY:
Assess the way your company uses technology by conducting an informal audit. Consider communications, printing and copying, the internet, storage, mobile access and anything else that touches on technology.
Identify manual processes that are costing your company time and money. Examples might include using services such as post, fax and telephone for communications rather than email.
Printing and copying are often expensive and unstructured in businesses. Consider instigating policies on usage as many documents may not need to be printed or could be converted to alternative formats if staff were aware of functions such as duplex printing. Also, consider using networked print/copy/scan multifunction products rather than standalone devices.
Many firms only use the internet for information access rather than for sharing data. Intranets and extranets can be created cheaply, and simplify access to data for internal staff and selected outsiders.
Networked storage is still not exploited by many businesses, but storing data on a central server is a quick and secure way to back up data and make it available to others.
PDAs, smartphones and other devices offer a way to get staff working even when between meetings and travelling.
Using third-party services for email, storage or other elements of IT can help firms focus on their core business activities.
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