New Zealand’s economy grew faster than usual in 2014. Many businesses had a year of solid sales. Profits were up across the economy. Growth is good news for everyone, yet it comes with challenges. Falling unemployment and increased demand put pressure on business owners to squeeze more productivity out of existing staff.
Technology can help. However, when the ‘T’ word gets used people usually think of hardware: computers, smartphones and other devices. Hardware is essential, but it is only the start of the journey towards productivity. The key lies in software and, increasingly, in services.
A device does little on its own. Add software and you can communicate, organise, calculate or store and find useful information.
Services are just as important. Devices work best when connected to broadband networks. This can be a fixed line or a 4G mobile data network. Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees now have 4G networks operating in most cities and in larger towns. If you need more mobile data, Spark’s extensive nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots based on telephone boxes gives you a gigabyte a day.
Mobile networks connect you to cloud services while you are away from your base. Cloud computing gives you near instant access to all your information wherever you are and many productivity applications now live in the cloud.
Used well, networks and clouds can give you huge productivity gains.
An OECD paper published in April 2014 by the Productivity Commission says New Zealand workers are surprisingly unproductive compared with workers in other countries. It is surprising because by world standards New Zealand has some of the most business-friendly policies on tax, employment, regulation and education.
Poor productivity means companies punch below their weight – we are not as rich as we should be.
Workplace productivity is a tricky thing to master. The Productivity Commission says one area that particularly needs work is ‘knowledge-based capital’. While this includes investing in things like research and development, it is also about getting leverage out of information technology through databases and other tools. Our national report card is marked “could do better”.
Getting more productivity from technology isn’t just a New Zealand problem. Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella wrestles with the same issue from a different point of view. Recently he sent a memo encouraging Microsoft staff to reinvent productivity. Nadella told employees Microsoft needs to “empower every person and every organisation on the planet to do more and achieve more”.
Microsoft has a history of giving the world productivity tools. Its software can be found wherever people work. Yet Nadella frets that software like Windows and Office need reinventing as the world moves from personal computers to mobile devices.
When the computer industry talks of ‘productivity apps’ it means word processors, spreadsheets, databases, presentation software and email applications that come in suites like Microsoft Office. In practice there’s more to productivity than these tools – and not everyone needs all of them. But they are a good place to start when looking to crank up productivity.
Although Microsoft makes its own hardware and has its own Windows operating system, the company is moving towards selling its productivity software and services to allcomers. You can run a full version of Office on a PC or a Mac. There are light versions for Windows Phone, iPhone and Android. If you use other devices there are free web versions of the Office apps that run in a browser.
It doesn’t matter if your business runs a variety of devices, Microsoft sells Office 365 subscriptions that give you the right to use the software where you choose. A one-year Home subscription to Office 365 is $165. You can use it on five PCs or Macs, five tablets and all your smartphones. Strictly speaking this version is not for business users – but for, say, a plumber with a home office, this is the best way to go. The Office 365 Business subscription is $162 per person.
Office 365 includes unlimited Microsoft OneDrive cloud computing storage so you can share and back-up documents. Some plans give you Skype PC-to-phone calling as well. Office 365 Business Premium edition, charged at $184 per person per year, includes a business email service and unlimited online video conferences.
Where Microsoft makes money from selling Office apps and services, Google and Apple mainly give their productivity away for free. They have different reasons for doing this. In Apple’s case the software comes as part of the deal when you buy hardware. Google’s free option is to generate data so it can sell more advertising.
Apple’s iWorks productivity suite is closely tied to the company’s hardware. Versions of the company’s word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software and email app run on Macs, iPhones and iPads. There’s also a cloud version that can run from anything, but realistically it is mainly used by Apple’s existing customers.
There are fewer features in iWorks apps than in their Office equivalents, but most of the stuff that’s missing is rarely, if ever, used in small business. And fewer features mean fewer distractions.
There’s a clever twist in the latest version of iWorks that Apple calls ‘Continuity’. If you start writing, say, a word processor document on your Apple laptop, you can carry on working with it later on a tablet or phone. The document is automatically loaded in your device and the cursor is blinking at the point you left off.
Continuity isn’t restricted to Apple’s own apps either, any developer can use the technology, but it is restricted to devices running Apple’s operating system.
Google’s apps are simpler than iWorks or Microsoft Office. They even have fewer features than iWorks. Until recently Google’s app suite was cloud only, you would use Google Docs or Google Spreadsheets through your browser. That’s changed; there are now downloadable apps that run on smartphones and tablets. The other thing that has changed is the name; Google now labels its apps as part of Google Drive, the company’s cloud storage service.
While Apple’s productivity focus is on the individual user, Google is more geared towards team collaboration. Lots of people can work simultaneously on the same Google document. This is great for teams and because everything lives in the cloud, collaborators don’t need to be nearby. Microsoft and Apple have now added collaboration to their software, but Google still leads in this area.
Google Drive is free. US$50 a year buys Google Apps for Business, a sprawling collection of productivity tools and services that includes Google Drive and the associated apps. You can use it to set up your own company email, shared calendars, video meetings and online presentations.
A generation ago no one used email in business. Recently McKinsey reported that knowledge workers now spend as much as 28 percent of their time dealing with email. Small business workers won’t be doing that much, yet dealing with email has become a problem for many organisations.
There are ways around the problem. McKinsey suggests people switch from email to instant messaging and other collaborative tools. That is not always practical. Google, which runs most of the world’s email through its Gmail service, has a different answer. In October it launched Inbox, which it says is a fresh start for email.
Other companies have attempted to make email more productive without success —Google may just have found a route through the maze. Inbox automatically categorises your incoming email and highlights what it thinks are the most important items. You can decide to hide messages to read later (if we’re honest that means never) or you can send them to the top of the list where they act like to-do list reminders. A clever twist is that smartphone users can make saved messages reappear when they reach a particular place, perhaps an office.
Smart cloud apps
Specialist cloud apps can give small companies technology that mirrors what is used in corporations at a fraction of the cost. One New Zealand cloud start-up, 9Spokes, pulls these apps together to give owners and managers a business-wide dashboard, similar to the ERP displays giant multinationals pay millions for. It means you can instantly spot problems or opportunities; learn what strategies work and which ones don’t.
9Spokes is a cloud app marketplace and an integrator. If you buy cloud apps from 9Spokes, you get a single monthly invoice to pay and you only need to log-on once to get access to everything. The company’s software pulls key data from your cloud apps to create reports and you can choose from standard dashboards for your market sector or build your own.
One of the cloud apps in 9Spokes’ marketplace is Vend, a New Zealand software developer that aims to do for the cash register what word processors did for the typewriter. The app works on computers, tablets and smartphones – you may already have seen it used in stores.
Retailers are drawn to Vend because the software replaces expensive point of sale hardware, but that’s just the start.
Moving from traditional point of sales opens a whole world of flexibility and productivity. Salespeople can bring devices directly to where customers are buying —not
necessarily in a shop or showroom.
BlackBerry’s Passport: built for business productivity
Blackberry designed the Passport from the ground up as a smartphone for business users who put productivity first. You can buy the Passport in New Zealand for around $1,100.
The Passport is larger and squarer than most smartphones. It has a square display that is 80 mm across the diagonal. As it happens this is more useful than the normal screen shape for reading PDF documents and some web pages. It is especially good for dealing with spreadsheets and map reading.
Like old-style BlackBerry phones, but unlike other modern smartphones, the Passport has a physical QWERTY keyboard. BlackBerry fans swear this makes it easier to type than the usual on-screen keyboards.
BlackBerry’s phone software includes a hub which puts all your communications channels in one place, with as many notifications as you need. An additional app, BlackBerry Blend can put this hub on your PC or tablet so that you always have quick access to everything.
Bill Bennett is an Auckland-based technology writer.
Email [email protected]
November 25, 2014