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Episode 21: Tech trends for 2016

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All Xero In episodes

Hosted by Jeanne-Vida Douglas and Rob Stone

Smartphones. You’re probably about to listen to this podcast on one. But are you maximizing your favorite pocket gadget for your business? There’s so much new tech out there that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

In this episode of Xero In, hosts Rob Stone and JV Douglas are joined by one of Australia’s top technology journalists and field commentators, Angus Kidman (Editor-in-Chief at Finder.com.au). Together, they launch headfirst into the world of mobile tech, discussing the top trends for the year ahead and sharing tips on how you too can unlock your inner tech-nerd.

Angus shares tips for small business owners about staying on top of mobile tech trends and maximizing the technology you’ve already got.

Small business resources:

How to make a splash in social media – TEDTalk

Does your business need a mobile site? – Xero Small Business Guide

Episode transcript

Hosts: Jeanne-Vida Douglas [JVD] and Rob Stone [RS]
Guest: Angus Kidman [AK]

JV: Here we are at Xero In and it's lovely to see you again Rob.

RS: You too JV.

JV: Today we've got a gentleman with whom I've had lots and lots of contact over the years. In fact, we've been chatting probably for the last two decades. It's Angus Kidman and he's one of those guys that a lot of the time people describe him as a tech guru because he seems to know everything about what's going on in terms of technology trends.

RS: That’s right and today he’s going to delve into some of the trends that businesses really need to be aware of over the next 12 months.

JV: Some of them are going to be technologies, for sure and some of them are just really going to be about culture, and how you create the right culture to adopt the right technologies, to identify the right technologies and really to mitigate risk. Because you're facing a risk if you're not using technology because somebody is going to come along and adopt that technology and quite simply, they're going to out-trade you. They’re going to win the deal before you, they’re going to reach out to customers before you do: in the right way, using the right methods. So, it’s something that you need to be across but at the same time you’re needing to run your own business. It’s always been a bit of a challenge for businesses to know what technologies they need to know about, and how much they need to know about them.

Let’s hear from Angus.

RS: Today we’re joined by Angus Kidman, he’s the editor-in-chief at finder.com.au.

AK: Hello.

JV: Thank you so much for coming in. For those very few of you out there that haven't heard of him, Angus has been kicking around the technology tracks for two decades, three decades?

AK: A bit over two decades. I'd rather not give an exact number.

RS: We’ve invited Angus in today to share some of his wisdom – to look at which areas of IT and technology businesses should be focussing on this year and why they’re so important.

JV: And also maybe find out how businesses can get that right balance between investigating the technology and understanding technology and also applying it to their business. What sorts of approaches they can use to make that effective.

AK: That's a very challenging thing, there's so much information about technology. I'm a specialist in this area and I still can find it overwhelming when you hear there's all these new things coming out. Which ones are going to matter, which ones don't? Hopefully I can offer a few tips on how people can work their way through that stuff.

JV: What would be great is, because what lots of people tend to do is call up the dude they know who knows the most about technology, which is often someone they know who studied information engineering or something like that at university, or the computer guy on the corner. What's the best reach out that you think, what's the most effective way to reach out and find out more?

AK: I think there is some value in talking to your IT expert, especially if that person is your supplier. If that's someone you've got a good relationship with, they are going to know your business and you can't underestimate the value of that, so I think that can be useful. I'm not so sure that ringing up the friendly nephew or the student that you know is such a good strategy just because, I mean they'll be very informed, I wouldn't want to question that level of knowledge, but sometimes it's about how you translate that that becomes important. When you're knee-deep in this stuff and you're really excited about it, you often don't think about the application or whether it's practical, it's just oh, it's new and it's shiny and I want it.

The technology industry thrives on that kind of thinking, but I don't think it's necessary for business in particular to jump on the bandwagon quite that quickly, in fact, I think that can be quite dangerous. It's okay to be a little bit behind that absolute front end of the curve.

Maybe a way of thinking about this for businesses who feel like they're not across that, is make yourself a calendar appointment. Say, "Okay, I'm going to just sit down once a month, the same way I review every other aspect of my business, I'm just going to devote an hour to reading about current technology trends trying to get myself informed." I think making that a deliberate thing you do rather than something you try and do on a casual basis or just reading on the train as you come in can really help you focus. Of course you've got to work out what to read in the first place, that's the other half of the challenge; but I think you can start by trying to learn a bit more about the technology you've already got.

That's a way that businesses can try and stay on top of this stuff without feeling overwhelmed by it; but it's about that regularity, it's about committing to saying, "Hey, this is important to my business," in the same way that I wouldn't let a month go by without looking at my books. I actually week go by without that happening. You may get part of that process saying, oh I've got to stay educated and informed as a business owner, as a business manager, and just build that into your routine, I think.

RS: Make it part of working on your business as well as working in your business.

AK: Yeah, very much. Saying that, hey, these are the tools that I'm going to need, I need to stay up to date with these tools.

RS: And technology is so vast and varied that you need someone who can deliver those insights into your business, but also position your business to remain relevant amongst the emerging trends.

JV: Let's start today, shall we? I am trying to run my small business, I have 15 staff, I have no idea what technology I need to know about for the next 12 to 18 months and I quite frankly find it slightly intimidating. Angus, what do I need to know, what's number one?

AK: I think one of the big things we've noticed probably in the last 12 months has been this merging together of what we used to see as entirely separate categories, which were tablets and laptop machines. Everyone is used to ... Most staff will probably have some kind of computer at their desk. Not so many years ago that might have been a desktop. These days, it probably would be a laptop. I don't see a lot of businesses going out and trying to buy desktops anymore because they're bulky, they're no cheaper than the laptops anymore, they're not portable, they don't enable that flexibility that we want our staff to have.

At the same time we've seen in the past five years the emergence of tablets. People are familiar with tablets but they don't often use them for business. Frankly, most people use tablets when they're lying around in front of their television at night idly looking up who's appearing on the TV in front of them, or just checking their Facebook or doing a bit of shopping while they're doing that. We really have seen, probably in the last year and we're going to see this continue this year, this shift towards devices that are both things. You can use them as a tablet without a keyboard when you want to, when you just want that consumption mode. When you actually want to do some work, you attach a keyboard to them and they become much more like a functional computer.

We've seen good examples, again, from both camps. We've seen the Microsoft Surface is probably the best known of the Windows machines, Apple has now got its iPad Pro which is a much larger iPad complete with built-in keyboard. Those are devices that if you're thinking about what your staff might be using, are going to give them more flexibility, but not perhaps have the sacrifices involved with the earlier versions of that technology.

JV: Yeah, so be a second round adopter on that one.

AK: Yeah.

RS: So I guess when you're making that decision you’re really weighing up a decision between software, hardware and the investments in or around culture and behaviour within the organisation.

AK: I think the cultural requirements might be really the most sensible point to dive into this discussion, because the reality is that for most of the key business apps you're going to want to use work perfectly well on both platforms. An enormous number of business apps now are browser-based, so really it doesn't matter…

JV: They'll work anyway.

AK: ... what technology you use, that's going to .. I don't think you have to start by thinking about the apps, but I think the cultural decision can be important. It can be about well, what are your staff used to? Do they want major retraining? It's not a big shift to go from a Windows machine to a Mac, but it's not no shift. You have to allow that there's going to be some transition time. Sometimes if we're talking about a business with 15 people in it, get a sense of what they're already used to and I think try and accommodate that on the one hand, to the greatest extent possible. I believe in hey, give people a tool that they're happy to use, make it clear what they've got to do with it, and don't worry about it.

The brutal reality is, you probably don't want to have to administer two different types of machines though because that's doubling the amount of work you've got to do in your business, so at some point you may want to say, "Hey, this is the standard that we're going for." Or you may want to go the version of, "Hey, this is the standard, you're welcome to spend an equivalent amount of money on a different device, but you're going to be held more responsible for dealing with any issues that come up." Then the people who are more engaged geeks will be happy with that, they might get the platform they like; your average staff member who just wants the tool to get the job done knows that they've got the official, supported platform.

Look at what you've already got, don't change from what you've already got for the sake of changing, but just maybe examine, maybe look at, hey, have we hired a lot of new staff recently? Do they have very different experiences to the people who have been here for five years and who expect us to work in a certain way? It's the usual business balancing act I think.

JV: Yeah, absolutely. It seems we're coming more into this bring your own device space then, which is potentially a whole episode on its own. Basically, think a little bit more and pay attention to what's happening in terms of hardware, and try to figure out whether or not tablets are your next laptop. What's number two?

AK: So number two. The hardware is crucial and it probably spins over into actually thinking about the phone. The phone is the device that everybody has on them all the time, and it is a work device now. We've crossed the point now where you really say oh people have a work phone, they'll have a separate personal phone. Nobody wants to do that.

I guess the question for the business is, what tasks will I let them perform on the phone? What tasks does it make sense for them to perform on the phone? That could be a very long list.

The big trend we've seen in phones for the past two years is the screens are getting bigger and bigger. We've seen the emergence of the various iPhone Plus models, the Samsung Galaxy Note, are the things that are... They're still phone size, but they're pretty large and you can do a surprising amount on the screen of one of those things.

If you're a business who has staff who are mobile and who aren't based in one place, I think it's critical that you think about what phones have they got and can they get? Can they perform useful business tasks on them, what do you want them to be allowed to do, and also maybe what do you want them to not be allowed to do, because your phone is the thing you're going to lose.

RS: Ok that’s a really good point. How does an agile workforce and mobility come together? For instance, how often do small business owners actually ask their employees, “do you prefer using a mobile device?”, “do you want to work remotely?”, these are the sorts of questions we need to be asking.

AK: Absolutely, because there's often this thinking of I know when you're working, you're at your desk, you're doing this; but you're not. It starts with email, email is still a core business system. Everyone goes on about it like it's dead, but it's the one thing you can guarantee that everybody has and it's very, very straightforward to set up your email on your phone, unless you've gone right out of your way to block your staff from doing that, they're going to be doing that, they're going to be looking at email.

JV: Ok so what about number three? What’s the next trend?

AK: I think following on from that, one of the key technology trends we have seen is that we're no longer storing all that vital business information on our devices. You'll be using your phone or your laptop to work through things, but the chances are, you're not storing that on a hard drive or an SSD within that system, you're actually storing that in the cloud.

JV: The cloud!

AK: The cloud is always there ready to gently sprinkle us. I think it is an important shift, this recognising that hey, okay, this is what's going on now, this is the best way to let people get access to information from a range of places. For most businesses it's the way to go.

JV: I think a lot of businesses have done it almost by accident because they've bought into either a type of software or some kind of service and it's a service that's based in the cloud; but they haven't necessarily been very structured about what kinds of cloud services they use and where they store their data and how they structure that.

RS: Perhaps it’s time to sit down and take an appraisal of what kind of cloud systems you're using and where your data is in fact, what kind of plan you're on, because you might find that you're spending a lot of money where you don't need to. You might also find that your data is at risk.

AK: Absolutely. I think that, if you call it conscious cloud, that need to shift from oh I've just been thinking about it. As you say, you've installed a handful of apps without really focusing on that and then suddenly what you discover is oh hang on, now I'm doing most of these things here. You do need to centralise and plan that a bit, you need to work out well what happens if that service isn't there?

JV: Exactly, yeah.

AK: That's always... Is there a backup, can I move from it? What are the options? I think this is the one that businesses often don't think about. The import options might be good, they've moved their existing systems into the cloud, that's great, but then there might come the time when you want to shift. If you want to shift you need to know that you can easily get hold of that data in usable form and move it somewhere else. If you haven't been asking those questions then I think it's time to ask those, and I think it's the business owner's job to start the conversation.

You need to apply that to everything you've got going on so you can really take advantage of that cloud-based approach because it is the way things are going. It's not going to disappear, but now that we know it's there, it's time to say, okay, let's make sure we're making the most of it, and that we're not just assuming that it's all going to work because the magical cloud person is running everything. Ideally that is what's going to happen, but it just pays to be a little bit cynical about these things, I think.

JV: Mm-hmm [affirmative], okay. We've got think a little bit more about your hardware and what kind of mobile systems you're using, whether you're using laptops or whether it's time to take the tablet. We've got find out what people are really doing with mobility and with their mobile phones and whether or not it's time to culturally and strategically structure that a little bit more, and have a look at what's happening with cloud. What's number four, what's the next thing people should be thinking about?

AK: So many people now, their principal source of information is social networking of one form or another. It really has become a dominant media source for many, many people. Businesses have to be aware of this on a number of levels. They've got to be aware of how their own business is perceived on social media, they've got to be aware of how they expect their own staff to behave on social media. They've got to be aware of how are they taking advantage of this as a way to attract customers, because it really has become very, very important but I don't know that it's top of mind for a lot of businesses.

 

RS: And tell me Angus, when you go through that, what's the first round of questions, who are you talking to, do you use it to talk to staff, do you use it to talk to current customers, and other stakeholders? What's the thought process you actually need to go through to begin this journey?

AK: I think with most, because social media is generally speaking it's outward facing and for the most part it's not restricted, you're not stopping, anybody who comes by can see that. I think you have to simultaneously look at it as a way of attracting new customers and keeping your existing customer base informed. You really do have to have both of those things going on at the same time; you can't afford to skip out of that.

The other area that I think really needs to be focused on, and again, this is actually driven by how the technology has changed, you've got to think about social media in terms of pictures, not just in terms of words. There's a tendency for most businesses to start out by saying, "Hey, well we've got some copy about this, we're excited about this product, we can write about it." It's just as important that you show off pictures of that and they need to be really good pictures these days, because everybody can take really good pictures.

Every single thing you do on social media needs to have an image with it, whether you're Tweeting, whether you're going on Facebook, whether you're perhaps using one of the image-centric social networking platforms, Instagram and Pinterest being the big, obvious ones there. You've really got to have this visual focus. For some businesses that's very natural, and for some businesses it's an absolute struggle because it's not their normal way of thinking, but I think it is something that drives what's going on.

Coming back to one of our earlier points, it might drive the kind of devices you tell people to get. You might want to say, hey, I want to make sure that all my staff have got good phones so that if there is something interesting, if they're out on a customer site or if there's a new product we can really show that off, we can really tell a story.

RS: So what's the fifth and final trend that small businesses need to be aware of?

AK: With all these things going on, they're amazing and they're extraordinary, you've got to remain focused on how this stuff stays secure. You've got all this business information, it's living at least temporarily in your devices, it's going up into the cloud, there's all this information there that's usually accessible, and if you don't have just good, basic security in place, there's the real risk of financial loss, of business humiliation, just a whole range of problems. The technology is getting better in a lot of respects, this is the upside, is that we've really seen this shift away from saying oh well it's all just about passwords.

There was this horrific piece of advice recently in a mainstream Australia newspaper, I won't name it, where they said, "De-clutter your digital life by using one password for everything."

JV: No.

AK: This is the worst possible advice you could ever offer, you must have different passwords for every service that you're on, but securing those behind something like using a fingerprint to get into the device is a good way of balancing those things off. Using the swipe thing, using password management software, which is available across phones and laptops and tablets so that you can have different passwords but you don't need to know them all is really the way to get through it; but it's so crucial because it really is an area where everything can go wrong.

So you need to think about that and again, you need a password policy, you need to be clear about what the password rules are and how often they'll be changed.

 

JV: There are technologies coming along that are going to make it easier, but what always strikes me about security is that it really needs to be part of your basic governance framework. You lock the door, you make sure that there is somebody at the end of the day who walks out the door who has a key and locks it when they leave the office, and probably turns the lights out too. There needs to be that kind of approach to IT security too. It needs to be integrated into your overall approach to risk, and to protecting your business. What are the sorts of cultural ways you can do that without scaring people too much and without also I guess putting them into a position where they're forgetting passwords and where they're not using certain technologies because they either can't get into them because they've forgotten their passwords or because they're just not comfortable using them.

AK: Definitely it's a cultural challenge and it's something you have to reinforce constantly from the top, I think. You have to make it clear to people, okay, this is why it matters and you've really got to make that a whole of company thing, not make it an IT responsibility solely.

JV: Yeah, absolutely.

AK: Not turn around and go, "It's IT's job to maintain the passwords." It's very much everybody's job to maintain the passwords and to recognise mistakes happen.

If you're letting people set their own passwords you've really got to explain to them what the rules are, but try and explain to them okay, here's how to actually come up with a password that people can't guess, which is easy for you to remember. My favourite trick for that remains the song trick.

JV: Right, yeah.

AK: Think of your favourite song, think of the first two lines of it, take the initial letter of each word. That's going to give you a long sequence of letters that don't make up anything and you'll always be able to remember it.

JV: That actually brings up a really interesting point, because there are very user-friendly approaches to security, and there are different algorithms that people can learn in order to get a secure password that they can remember for different websites or for different software packages.

RS: There’s a lot of investment that’s been made into perimeter security. The weakest point in any organisation is the individuals within it: Their culture, their behaviour – that’s why they’re targeted so often. Phishing, malware, and that’s where the investment needs to be made around security.

AK: It really is, it underpins the whole approach because once your security is working you can take advantage of all these things, and that's when they really start to flower because you're not worrying about them going wrong, you can concentrate on them going right.

JV: Okay, so in a nutshell, what we need to be thinking about is the transition from laptop to tablets and whether or not it's right for your business right now. We need to be thinking about the cloud, and whether or not you've structured that in a strategic way, we need to be thinking about mobiles and where they're being used already in your business and whether or not you need to perhaps have data plans for your staff or have a bit of extra training for your staff about how to use them effectively. We need to be thinking about social media and how you're using that within your business, and really underpinning all of this, we need a cultural approach to security.

 

RS: And it’s also thinking about it really at that cultural level, not at the minutia of this is what we do about this software package and this is what we do about this hardware to close it down, it's culturally thinking about well this is our underlying secure approach and this means we can use social media and we can use the cloud effectively and we can use our mobiles to access our email on the way to work in the mornings.

AK: Absolutely. You can always find the geek to help fix up the little fiddly bits, but the culture is something you have to drive everyday within your business, you can't just put it to one side.

JV: Absolutely. Angus, thank you so much for joining us on Xero In.

AK: My pleasure.

JV: Now that was a really, really fascinating insight because it really reinforced the fact that what you need to understand first and foremost about technology is that it's about culture not about bits and bytes. It's not really about the hardware or the software that you're using, it's whether or not you're culturally ready to get the most benefit from it.

RS: A takeaway for me is that if we’re going to focus on, not just perimeter security, but also the behaviours of individuals within the organisation, let’s start with the basic question of, “when was the last time you changed your password? Do you have your passwords consistent across all your applications?”

JV: The thing that really occurred to me when I was listening to Angus speak is he was talking of the fact that no one buys desktops anymore but we all still use our laptops on our desktops.

People don't actually tend to use the laptops in the way they can to really unlock the productivity or the productive potential of their staff and of their business. I thought it was interesting that he said we're going to start to look at where tablets can be used but really, Maybe we should start to look at where we can use laptops effectively to really turbo charge businesses.

RS: Thanks JV, really interesting interview and can’t wait to see you next week.

JV: Thanks for listening.

 

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