Going Digital Without Burning Your Fingers

Where do I begin? That simple question can be the toughest for small businesses. Not knowing how--or where--to start off with computers or networks has kept many a small company in the digital Dark Ages. But now, luckily, there are more opportunities for enlightenment than ever before.

First, check with other small businesses in your area for recommendations. For leads, try associations such as the Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce, which often know the companies that have gone this route before. Franchise owners can tap the knowledge of others in their chains. Ask about their experience with computer companies, software suppliers, or systems integrators--the consultants who customize off-the-shelf technology for individual businesses.

ASK WHY. Next, focus on what really needs to be fixed. If inventories are piling up, a hot manufacturing package may not be the answer. Often, say consultants, companies need to focus on core business issues before picking through the technology. "When small-business people come in and want to automate, the first question I always ask is: Why?" says Robert Distler, president of WAC Consulting Inc., which sells financial and manufacturing systems. As a first step, he suggests doing a needs analysis to determine what, if anything, can be gained from putting in automation.

Going back to school is another good idea. Scan the catalogs of local colleges for adult-education classes that can make a novice familiar with computer terms and technology. "The initial hurdle is becoming comfortable with the technology," says John W. Newman, who directs the family-business program at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. "Once over that, you're able to adapt to new technologies as they become available."

Having analyzed your business and picked up a dose of techno-talk, seek some high-level advice. Universities with computer-science departments often have professors skilled in inventory management and in planning complex systems--common small-business bugaboos. And many professors moonlight as consultants to keep themselves up-to-date. Some business schools, such as Vanderbilt University, assign student teams to consult with small businesses for class credit.

For those unable or unwilling to become so involved, sophisticated help is also available these days. Big-name computer, telecommunications and consulting companies are hot to expand their systems-integration practice among fast-track small businesses. For instance, researcher Cognetics Inc. has hired giant Northern Telecom Ltd. to assess and provide for all its needs--as part of the price of buying the company's products. "I don't even know what hardware I'm getting," admits Cognetics President David L. Birch. "I trust them to find the least error-prone equipment--because they'll have to fix it." In his case, knowing where to begin wasn't even an issue. Birch is letting someone else make that decision.

      -- Don't try to automate everything. Pinpoint key operations that will give the biggest bang for the buck.
      -- A little knowledge goes a long way. Consider taking a college night course to get a basic understanding of techno-speak.
      -- When you're ready to buy, kick the tires. Whether you use a computer company, a consultant, or a software specialist, check references and look at what they've done for other businesses.
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