Tristan Wilkinson, Director for Public Sector for Europe, Middle East and Africa at microchip manufacturer Intel, has been engaging with audiences at Breakthrough Live events across the UK, discussing current themes in technology affecting British businesses.
“During my Breakthrough talks I throw out a few technology topics that people might want to talk about,” says Tristan, a passionate believer in digital inclusion and how it can bolster and improve social ties. “They included mobility, data protection, servers, multi-platform technology and home working. But currently the most popular topic is social media.”
The important thing to note about social media, according to Tristan, is that it permeates people’s lives – particularly in the case of young adults – and can therefore have a huge impact on the popularity of businesses and demand for their brands. This is especially true of the biggest multinational companies, whose hundreds of thousands of customers regularly air their views on Twitter and Facebook without regard for corporate reputations. This affects SMEs too, albeit on a smaller scale.
Social media marketing
The authority of social media is the reason why big brands in sport, food and fashion spend millions of pounds a year trying to influence the way customers discuss their experiences and relate to brands online. Peer-to-peer marketing is as powerful as it gets, and even smaller businesses need to be wary of its influence.
“Social media affects most businesses,” says Tristan.
“Even if you’re the type of firm that teenagers don’t talk about all the time on Facebook – a haulage company for example – you still need to be aware that your office staff can talk about you, in good or bad terms, when they log on at home."
“If I had a bad day at work and moaned about my employer it would start to impact the company brand, affecting how people view it, whether they want to buy from it and potentially even making it harder for them to recruit in future.
“I can’t imagine any 21-year-old getting their first job and not talking about it online in their own time. It’s not just about driving new customers, there’s also a big discussion about whether it is possible to control what your staff say in a world you have no jurisdiction over,” Tristan adds.
Tristan believes it’s best not to restrict what your employees say. Better to keep them informed of company policy regarding social media and to educate them as to the impact casual banter can have on the reputation of the business. The more you try and regulate social media use, the more likely people are to resist, so you need to have a plan. Do not, as some have tried, to ‘friend’ your employees and monitor what they say directly. Just be aware that people talk and when they talk online lots of people can hear.
New technology, new opportunities
But technology is not just about social media. It has improved the way businesses communicate and grow in other ways too. For example, Tristan himself was part of the team that started the Wi-Fi revolution in bars and coffee shops, thus triggering the seismic shift to mobile working characterised by flexible working conditions and meetings outside the office.
Tristan believes Wi-Fi is just one of thousands of technological advances that have created new business opportunities. Tablets, mobile phones and laptops, as well as the ever-evolving software that runs them, all foster change by creating new micro-industries around them. “Intel is a big microchip manufacturer, but for every one job we create another 10 spring up in the ecosystem,” he says. “For example, we’re bringing out some new hardware in 2012 and we’re encouraging developers to create new apps that relate to the very specific features of our new product.
“I do a lot of work in Tech City in east London and there are companies that only exist because other technologies have been invented. App developers are an example, but there are hundreds more, ranging from accessory manufacturers to search engine optimisation specialists. As technology moves forward it creates more and more opportunities.”
Getting business talking
New hardware and software inspire companies to start up and invent new things, but it also forms the backbone of businesses whose founders have no connection, or even an interest, in the technology sector.
Today you can start a business with a £400 laptop, which will contain everything you need to make plans and communicate with clients and business partners. But technology is also a vital ingredient in the formula that helps businesses grow beyond their roots into giants with a multi-million pound turnover.
Faster communication gives small businesses access to markets that wouldn’t be accessible in an analogue world. Marketing online, for example, through blogs, free websites and forums lets businesses talk about their products for a fraction of the cost of a display marketing campaign. VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology like Skype allows businesses to talk for free, while mobile communications are becoming ever cheaper and more powerful.
Growth via technology
Tristan believes technology has the power to transform a business overnight.
“Going viral on Twitter could increase your turnover by 1,000% - But technology also brings economies of scale, efficiency in management and scope to grow in general.”
For companies looking to upscale, it is important to build technology into your growth plans. Getting the right network mix of servers, desktop PCs, phone systems and mobile technology will help you put the processes in place to take headcount from 10 to 100 without faltering or suffering downtime.
Equally, Tristan believes it’s important to factor growth into your annual technology review. Making plans for growth before you act could save you money in the long-run. You need to think like the business you want to become and consider what the implications are for security, data protection, hardware and staff.
Keep these basic principles in mind and technology could become your greatest ally as your business grows. As Tristan points out, technology has the ability to surprise you; it’s up to you, therefore, to make sure that surprise is positive one.
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