Use IT Innovation to Build Resilience and Strength For Your SME

Most IT is sold on the topic of fear, uncertainty, and doubt — what's much more valuable is seeing how innovation within your IT systems can help you build resilience and adaptability within your IT. In this episode, Matthew Reynolds takes a look at optimising micro and macro workflows within your business to help create an innovative culture and landscape.
20 June 2020
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Hey, deserving listeners and welcome to the It's What's Next podcast for SME owners who are interested in learning a bit more about how IT can help their business. Today we're going to look at innovation, or more specifically, we're going to look at how we can add resilience and strength and adaptability and flexibility to our business by innovating with IT. We're going to start by talking a little bit about what innovation is, then we're going to look at flow, workflows within the business, Robotic Process Automation, and then we’re going to touch on some data-driven business bits and pieces.

As of the time of recording, we're in the middle of June, and we are just starting to see the release of the lockdown restrictions within the UK about the COVID-19 pandemic. Over those months we've seen small businesses do a lot of work around trying to work out how their business is going to survive or deal with the fact that quite a lot of businesses can’t trade at the moment because of restrictions. We’re also looking at ideas about what might happen with the economy going forward. This means that a lot of businesses are looking at these existential crises we’re thinking, “How are we going to survive at this point?” It doesn't necessarily have to be that there’s some threatening aspect to our business for us to think about ways that we can make it more resilient and more adaptable. These are evergreen concepts that apply even in the good times and in the bad times. However, it is much more important to lean in and really get some of these things sorted out when everything is a bit difficult.

A word that we've been hearing a lot about is this idea of pivot. If you talk to a lot of business owners, they’ll start talking about pivoting their business and you're probably thinking about, “In [my] business, what are we do about pivoting?” Pivoting isn't really pivoting if everyone is doing it. Pivoting is the idea that we're looking at some opportunity or threat within our business that we want to be able to move in order to take advantage of that opportunity or in terms of avoiding a threat. When we’re all pivoting, because we're all doing the same thing, it's more like we’re flocking. It’s like we’re a flock of birds and we’re all suddenly changing direction on mass away from a threat or towards an opportunity, and of course, at the minute there's quite a lot of threats. A good example of this is online networking. You see a lot of networking groups who are sitting there going, “We've pivoted to going online”. Well okay but all of them have gone online so that can’t be a pivot. It's nice that we have the opportunity to do that and it's nice that within that community the people who are in those groups or manage those groups are able to take advantage of the technology in order to go in a different direction. It's [also] nice for the people who like to consume those services. Like I’m a big fan of networking. Online networking is obviously not exactly the same thing.

Innovation doesn't have to be that we're doing something amazing like designing a new jet engine that we need millions and millions of pounds of investment in. It can literally be, “What small thing or things can we do in our business to give ourselves a capability that didn't previously exist?” The reason why this lines up quite nicely for IT is that IT is a toolbox for innovation. IT is a set of principles, a set of practices, a set of technologies that can come together and let us do things in a way that we weren't able to do them before. We don't have to do very much. We just have to think creatively and use some of the tools that we've got, and we might need to make some investment in some other tools. We might need to make some changes to processes and procedures and make some investment in those things, but we can start to innovate. We can develop a capability within our business that somebody else doesn't have. By doing that, we're making ourselves more resilient. We're building resilience, we’re building strength because we're becoming more adaptable and becoming more flexible. The idea of that resilience is that this is what will give us the chance when if we do have this existential threat or these big problems in the economy or the markets or whatever, we can go, “Actually, we're a bit more resilient or we can do this. We can handle this sort of thing because of the way that we have set our businesses up”. From my perspective of someone who's interested in IT and interested in how IT can help business, my position is that we can look at what we can do with IT to do that innovative bit.

We're going to kick off by talking about flow. Flow is a positive mental state of being absorbed in a task and able to be creative and be productive and do things in an almost superhuman state of mind. This is the sort of time where we sit down and do some work and we lose track of time and we get completely absorbed and we end up creating something unbelievably special. It's this point that we want to get to. We want to achieve flow for ourselves because we run our businesses and we want to make sure that we're able to, A) really enjoy that but B) also come up with some really special things. Also, if we’ve got people working for us, we want them to achieve as well because, on the one hand, we get more out of people if they're in flow, but on the other hand, when we're helping them to be creative we're helping them to do their best work. Those people are working for us. If we're saying, “This is an ideal work environment”, this is good for them and ultimately good for the business.

There has been lots of research about flow and I don't want to get too much into the research side because it's not really my bag. There are lots of people online who talk about research to do with flow but in principle, intuitively we know what this is but to put a bit of me on the bones, it’s the point where we want to get to where we've got the right level of stretch. So, we've got a job or a task to do that's not that easy but it's not too hard. It's not going to overwhelm us and it's not going to bore us. It needs to be in that sweet spot of, “Actually, this is well within my wheelhouse. This is something I can do a good job of. I just need to make sure I've got everything set up so that I can”. The other thing that's important for flow is that the feedback loop is short. We want to get the feedback of these tasks straight away coming back to us. When we get to that, we've got a good chance in flow.

In the software engineering industry - which is what my background is - it’s well understood. As a software engineer, the times in my life when I was doing a lot of software engineering, software engineers just get obsessed with getting their heads down and blocking everything out. When you're building computer software the way that it works is, because it's a conceptual thing, you're building something out of something abstract - that doesn't exist - you have to build the model of what you’re trying to build in your head. It's a bit like a deck of cards or a stack of building blocks. It doesn't fit together beautifully because you're trying to work out if it [goes] together. If you go to a software engineer and you interrupt them with anything, the thing they've got in their head falls apart and it takes twenty minutes to get back to a point where you've recovered where that is. Now, pretty much no one who listens to this podcast is going to be a software engineer, but this applies to anyone who's doing any form of creative knowledge-based work. A flow state involves creating in your mind a picture of what it is you're trying to do and getting into a position where you have this unconscious competence where you're moving things apart in your head and you’re putting stuff down on paper and you’re getting the information in right place and you’re thinking really clearly. Every time you get interrupted, it takes twenty minutes to get it back.

You can get interrupted in several ways: the phone can ring, you can get a new email, the fire alarm can go off, a coworker wants to tell you about their weekend, any of those sorts of things but in the context of IT and IT innovation, IT is well known for something that interrupts flow. Some people are very uncomfortable using computers anyway, but I would guess that those are not an audience of people who are using a computer in order to achieve flow. This could be for someone who is a knowledge worker using computers. This could be writing a particularly good report, putting together a proposal, doing some mind mapping, those sorts of things. If we're trying to use a PC or Mac, so a computer that’s slow, it's buggy or the software that we use crashes or the Internet is slow or the screen isn’t the right brightness or the keyboard has got a broken key or something like that, it will stop us achieving flow. So, that PC, if it's not set up exactly how it's supposed to be, it will stop us from achieving that flow state so it's well worth leaning in and fixing those issues.

Another way to put this is that the PC or the computer you're using is a tool and the more you invest in that tool and the more thought and care you take into the selection and the use and the care of that tool the better it will be. This is the same if you're a painter or a carpenter or a mechanic or did anything. The tools that you do - although there's a cliche of a bad workman blames [his] tools. Like a lot of clichés, there’s stuff to it but the tool needs to be good for the job. The one thing to do is to set up a culture within your business where you're mindful of these flow states. Try and get a culture coming out of the business of when there is something not working with the computer systems that your staff is using, they’re able to take that back to you and say, “You know what? This VPN connection is too slow” or “I can't transfer this stuff around” or “think [about] rebooting every hour” or whatever. That lets you get an opportunity to fix these small problems where flow is hard to get hold of. We’re going to come to that in the next section where we link this back to innovation. So, we touched on this in the last episode when we talked about how laptops are notorious for not enabling flow and that it's better to create a flow friendly workstation by saying, “If you have to use a laptop, set it up with a landing strip”. So, have a desk where you've got a full-size monitor, full-size keyboard, a nice decent mouse, ideally, you’ve got two monitors. That's what we want to try and do. We want to try and get our computers so that we're using them in a way that promotes or supports or doesn't militate against us developing flow.

Now that we've been through and thought about what flow is, we can talk about workflows. In this section, we're going to go into workflows and also into something called Robotic Process Automation, RPA. What we're talking about in the last section with regards to flow is this idea of reliability. Not in terms of being reliable in terms of faults or failures such as, “Is the cars going to start to turn the key in the morning?”, but whether or not we can rely on how we've got everything set up to get us into a flow state and whether that flow state is something within the business that everyone is pushing towards. Flow state describes our individual mental state but the workflow within the business describes how we go about doing the work we do and how those workflow parts fit together is key. There are two kinds of workflows we need to think about - a micro level and a macro level. We often see this sort of idea when we apply systems thinking that the patterns at the micro level affect the patterns at the macro level. So, how the individual tiny little parts work tends to affect how well the whole machine works. Micro workflows are how individuals do the work that they do. This is like how the work gets done. Whereas macro workflows are what the organization does, what kind of work gets done.

If you're a pest control business, your macro workflows might be that you've got to get a van out to a customer site. You've got to do whatever it is you do in terms of collecting the old traps, putting new traps down, doing an assessment, etc. The micro-level of the workflow is actually how the individual is doing the individual parts that go together.

When we're looking at innovation, there isn't much innovation to be had in flow. It's best practice stuff. There are things that we can look at and go, “Okay, well if we do this it promotes flow, and if we do that it militates against flow”. The workflow itself is where we can start to see innovation. By innovation, the definition that we’re using here is that we're trying to do something our competitors either can't do or they can't do in the way that we can such that the end result is we get some benefit from that capability. So again, we're not looking to innovate and say, “This is an entirely new thing that nobody can do”, we're looking at our community of competitors, that little constellation of people that work with or against us [and saying], “Can we do things which are different?” An example I like to give with this is the idea of social listening. Partly because it’s an interesting example but also because I'm really interested in ideas around marketing and as an SME owner I’m really interested in marketing and sales and I like this crossover about how IT can help with marketing and sales, so social listening is a great example. Social listening is social media marketing’s best-kept secret. If you've got someone out there saying to you, “You need to be marketing on Facebook or YouTube or Instagram or LinkedIn or Twitter” or whatever, when you’re doing all that marketing you’re doing it in full view of everyone else which is great because your customers can see it but interesting in that your competitors can see as well.

If you think about making a telemarketing campaign, your competitors could not listen to your telemarketing script. If you were doing a direct mail piece or an e-mail marketing piece your competitors, they may be able to see those communications but they're less likely to. If you post something on Twitter all your competitors can see. This applies to search engine marketing and social media marketing as well. A macro application of a workflow within a business to do with this can be that you have a process within your business that says that, “I've got these keywords I want to track on AdWords and I want to know which of my competitors are bidding for them”. I might have another piece that goes along with that, so I know exactly how much they're paying as well. That's the macro application that I want to be able to make decisions within my business based on data that comes from an analysis of AdWords. The micro workflow that goes on is that someone has to go onto Google and actually search those keywords each day and then make a note of who keeps up with it and they maintain a little database or Excel or whatever. The macro application is that we've got to do this constant ongoing competitive analysis and the micro application is what we do.

This is a good example of a grunt work task that has to happen within a business. These grunt work tasks happen wherever and there are two problems with grunt work tasks. One is that they’re incredibly boring for the person who’s doing it and two, that there's an opportunity cost in that if you ask someone to spend two hours every morning sitting there going through Google AdWords or making a list for you, they're not doing anything creative so not bringing their full capabilities to bear on the business. This grunt work is not the sort of thing we want a human being to do and that's where we get into the idea of Robotic Process Automation or RPA. RPA is a really strange term. It's a term that you would expect to see invented in the '80s but it is a new thing and is quite hip and trendy in enterprise space or large corporate IT systems. RPA is just a software robot and it’s a fancy name for effectively, a macro, or a piece of software that knows how to do something so it replaces a task that a human being would do. We often think about these ideas that artificial intelligence or software is going to take people's jobs and RPA doesn't necessarily need to be an artificial intelligence thing. It can be relatively simple like building a piece of software that searches on Google for the keywords you want to rank for and taking note of your competitors. It doesn't require AI and is not particularly difficult to write.

When we talk about technology taking jobs, we need to think more about - if you've ever been to B&Q and you've seen they've got those machines in there where it will cut a key for you. Rather than going down to Timpson’s with your key, there's a machine in B&Q you put your key into and it cuts it. We're not looking at general-purpose artificial intelligence or robots or software robots taking jobs, it's being able to do these things that can be automated so it’s an extension of automation. Again, the thing that I lean into as a social enterprise is that I think actually I'm creating better jobs the more RPA that I can do in my business because I'm freeing up people to do things which only a human can do. I want that person to feel that they are actually contributing because they genuinely are contributing. So, there's this idea that you can have ‘RPA’ or RPA in terms of, “I've just got some piece of software in my business that does this repetitive task for me that’s part of a workflow”. By identifying those parts where we can say, “Here is a workflow within the business and if we take an RPA systems view to it we're able to do that in a way that our competitors can’t then it fits our definition of innovation”. An example here might be if you did a social listening campaign to keep track of your competitors on AdWords, you might be able to do that forever. Come rain or shine, hell or high water, you can do that job forever because you're doing it with software and once you've made that initial investment you can use it forever. Your competitors might be doing the same thing but if they're doing it manually, if they come under a bit of a pinch or the person is sick or simply just doesn't want to do it anymore or it doesn't seem to have that same perceived value, they may stop doing that task. So, you've managed to create a capability innovatively within your business that your competitor can’t do.

Like a lot of things to do with IT, when you're thinking about it on this level, it comes down a lot to culture. You’re trying to build a culture where you're promoting the idea that finding opportunities that would boost workflow efficiency on a micro or macro or both levels in an organization are key. So what can you do to get your staff thinking about optimizing their personal micro workflows? Can you create a culture where if a staff member is sitting there going, “This thing I’m being asked to do every day is just stupid. There's got to be an easier way to do this”, rather than having an employee that goes, “I've just got to do this. This is my job and I want to crank on with it”, you can have everyone looking out for these opportunities. Again, this comes down to you as a business owner to look at your micro workflows as well. It's slightly different at that level where you have to develop a better understanding of what the systems you're using can do. You need to have a better understanding of what the IT could do in order for you to possibly make greater leaps than you would expect someone else in the business who wasn’t able to have their full mind on where the business is going to go all the time. Again, you need to be looking at your personal micro workflows, designing the macro workflows, and creating a culture where everyone is pushing towards optimization of those workflows and finding opportunities for innovation. That way you can get some innovation almost by osmosis. You don't need to do anything, it just comes out from the culture. Rather than having to go, “You know what? This month we've got to do something innovative. We've got to come up with something clever” and sitting down and doing it as a deliberate task, it becomes something that the business does without effort.

So, just before we go into the last bit and start unpacking the idea about data-driven businesses and CRM which we're going to go on to in a later podcast, I wanted to talk a little bit about what it is that I do within my business and what my business It’s What's Next IT does. We are a managed IT support business so we help small to medium enterprises with their IT. Things like backup, antivirus, Microsoft 365, etc. We do break/fix support so if something breaks, we can come in and fix it. We also do a lot of support and education with our customers to make sure that they're getting IT that operates at a really good level so they can do things like the innovation that we're talking about in this podcast or stuff we've spoken by in past podcasts. We happen to be a social enterprise so we do the IT for SMEs but we employ people who are disadvantaged in the job market such as care leavers, ex-services personnel, and so on and as such we are unique. We're the only business in the country that does this, and we work within the Milton Keynes and surrounding areas so Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Milton Keynes, Northampton, etc. If you'd like to learn more about what it is that we do, you can visit our website

In this last section, we’re going to look at the idea of being data-driven and how our CRM or Customer Relationship Management system impacts that. Previously we spoke about creating a culture of finding ways in which workflows on both macro and micro levels can be optimized but ideally this has to go hand in glove with making decisions in a data-driven way. A lot of SMEs don't make decisions in a data-driven way. It tends to be a larger organization way of thinking about things, but I don't think there's any reason for this other than the fact that it just isn't a typical thing that people do. There's no reason why SMEs can't be data-driven, why they can't collect data and work with data in the same way that large organizations can do and do, do to great effect. We're going to talk about data-driven and CRM ideas in future podcasts. It is a critical component in optimizing an SME business so that it's IT is more than the basic IT anyone can get just by driving down to PC World, picking up a laptop, and taking out a Microsoft 365 subscription. It's this that separates the adults from the children. [The] general idea is that while intuition has its place and all businesses depend on intuition and we all as business owners make intuitive leaps about how things should be done, we’re generally better able to make decisions if we're able to rely on data and again it comes down to a cultural thing. If we can promote the idea that being data-driven within our business is better, we're likely to get better and smoother decision making. This means that we need to be able to A) collect the data, B) store the data, and C) analyze the data. As an SME, it's unlikely [that] we're going to have so much data that we can’t analyze it, that we can’t look at things and make decisions. Rather than being a large organization that might have masses of data we have to make decisions based on, we can blend the intuition and fast, agile thinking of an SME with the bits of data that we can collect.

When it comes to collecting data, all businesses experience constant flows of data because every event within the business creates data. This can be something as concrete as a customer phoning in with a customer service query in which case we might know the person who took the call, the person who called in, what it was about, which number they called on, how long the call was, etc. All these little data points we can collect. Or it can be something as ephemeral as how much coffee a team gets for each week. We can go, “Last month we ordered three massive tins of coffee and this week we’ve ordered four. What's going on there?” I’m not necessarily saying that that's a useful form of data but I'm trying to draw an example that data can be something that people expect - so if you're monitoring calls people expect some data to come out of that process - to something within the business that people don't really expect to find data-driven.

We saw an example above as to how if we use social listening, we collect data on what our competitors are doing, and this can let us make data-driven decisions. We might intuitively sit there and think, “I really need to go to Google and I need to rank for this particular keyword” and someone comes up to you as a business and goes, “No, keyword ‘A’ is not the one you want to go for, you want to go for keyword ‘B’. We respond, “Well why do we do that? I think it should be ‘A’” Your colleague is saying, “No, I think you should be ‘B’ and you’re both sitting there going, “Well okay which one is it going to be?” Ultimately someone has to make a decision. However, if we have data that says that we know our competitor is having great success with keyword ‘B’ and in our case, we know that the colleague is right and that our intuition is wrong, we can see that we should focus on keyword ‘B’ and that colleague is going to have a legitimate argument to say, “But we’ve got the data to support my argument and we don't have the data support your argument”. With a cool head, we can look at this and go, “You know what? Yeah.”

There's a principle in police forensic investigations that every time a person interacts with some sort of space, some forensic evidence persists that can be detected and acted upon. That is exactly the same as what's happening here. There's a good chance that you have way more data available to you than you think. To come back to my last point about my own personal fondness for looking at marketing and sales in small business, this is a very data-driven discipline. There are lots of things that you know like how many emails you sent out, how many were opened, how many were forwarded, how many clicks you got on a website, how much it cost to get that paid click in from Twitter etc., how many people came to the event. All of these things, there’s loads of information you can collect. The question is then, “Where do you put that data?” Although it depends what the data is, a really decent place to put it is in your CRM. If you don't have a CRM, A) you need one and B) we're going to talk about CRM more as we go on through this podcast and there’s stuff on the website that I called out before about how to select a CRM. It is an absolutely critical piece of software for your business to have a CRM available to everyone in the business where all of this data that you're collecting can be put so everyone has an opportunity to throw in, to the lean in and get involved with this decision making.

Your CRM should be a central repository of everything that happens in, happens to or happen for the business. All of that data should live in there. By doing that you make it more equivalent than what you can often get with CRM in SMEs in that it's just effectively the same as hoarding a box full of business cards. By putting that data in, by being able to make decisions, you can do some really special things with it and become a data-driven business. There are simple, easy ways in which we can innovate within our business and by doing so we're building resilience and adaptability. Again, innovation doesn't have to be anything flashy. It can literally be, “We can do something our competitors cannot”. We spoke about how flow is important. That by getting everything working well and flowing properly, it lets us focus on the workflows within the business - our micro and macro levels - to find those opportunities for innovation. To be able to do things our competitors can’t or do things that they do do, we can do things in a way that they can’t, and the culture is key here. Being able to have that culture that says, “Everything's been set up beautifully. We’re able to achieve flow. We’re able to put our creative thinking on. Where can we find these workflows that we want to improve?” Once we have that culture and once we've got that innovation mindset by being data-driven and being able to collect that data, put it in a place where we can see it and have again, a cultural change to really think about data and move away from intuitive thinking and be data-driven or rather bring intuition into how we're making decisions based on data, we can find places that we can innovate and we can do some really special stuff.

I do hope the things that we've spoken about in this podcast have been useful. Thanks very much for listening and take care.