A new approach to business systems

A very familiar scene

It’s not uncommon to come across teams, departments or even entire organisations that are lacking structure in their work, feel disorganised and generally chaotic. There is a lot of activity, and everyone’s schedules are crammed full with stuff to do, and yet there is the apparent lack of movement towards the organisation’s stated goals – whatever they might be at a point in time.

This very uncomfortable and unproductive atmosphere usually boils down to a few key reasons:

  • No central place for everyone to be working from.
  • An endless number of spreadsheets, with different passwords and macro keyboard shortcuts, all designed with good intention but which do more harm than good.
  • Inability to capture crucial data, relevant to an individual’s and the organisation’s goals, in a structured manner (I’ll touch on this in more detail later)
  • Unable to retrieve this data in a meaningful way and act on it.

The antithesis of this is a team or organisation that not only delivers what’s needed but also the the sense of coherence in how everyone is striving towards the same common goals.

That’s where we want to be.

Is the secret sauce behind such coherent and forward-moving organisation that they enable and encourage individuals and teams to capture relevant information and data in a manner that’s genuinely useful, and collaborate around it?

A familiar refrain

Although software systems themselves are never the answer to any business or process problem, plenty of them exist to try and bring order to this perceived chaos. Many of them even come quite close.

However most such systems have two significant flaws, which to many businesses are deal breakers.

  • Such business systems are difficult to procure. Ask any IT/Technology Manager working in a SMB/SME. Such systems are even harder to develop, and nearly impossible to get the resources, the budget and the justification for. Again, ask any SMB.
  • Such systems are very good at approaching problems in a generic way, but never quite the way you need to tackle it.

No doubt where possible bespoke systems have huge benefits, but only so long as the business focus does not move off these investments. You’re in a lot of trouble the moment:

  • these systems are no longer meeting the organisation’s needs;
  • the skill sets required to maintain and improve them is no longer available, or too expensive to bring in;
  • the technology underpinnings are so out of date that you’re relying on kludgy and expensive hacks just to keep things running.

The ideal systems to address such business challenges are a compromise between:

  • being good enough to capture the data needed, present it back meaningfully and allow individuals and team to collaborate around it
  • quick to implement, as in minutes and hours, not days and weeks

Are ‘collaboration platforms’ the answer?

I fear not. There are many out there and in almost all cases they fail to live up to the the ever changing and evolving needs of an organisation.

The key reason such platforms don’t work is because they don’t have the data that’s relevant to the organisation’s stated goals to collaborate around. It’s all very well to have clever features which allow you to have conversations, votes, likes/dislikes, etc., but that sort of activity soon starts to falter since most of the data the business needs to carry on its work is held in external and inaccessible databases, documents and spreadsheets.

An emerging solution

An interesting platform has emerged in the form of Podio (@Podio) which deserves further investigation by anyone hoping to find the answers to the challenges their organisation faces within the context outlined so far.

Relegating Podio to simply another project management tool or collaboration platform is doing it a huge disservice.

Podio delivers mightily on two of the key fundamentals for building good business systems, which are:

  • build bespoke systems to capture data that’s relevant to the organisation and its stated goals, in a structured and meaningful way.
  • build these bespoke systems in minutes, literally minutes - and that’s after watching a quick video, not a 2 week training course.

With this data at the heart of everything, collaboration across teams and individuals starts to make a lot of sense.

Real world use cases

Given the fundamental building blocks made available by the Podio platform, it’s surprising how well it can be moulded to fit your unique needs. And be able to deliver this quickly and cheaply – which is key.

So who can use it and what can they use it for?

A freelancer taking on small projects:

  • Manage active customer list
  • Record and track all customer contact history (for e.g. marketing & networking efforts)
  • All potential clients that need more work to bring onboard
  • Invoices & business expenses
  • Projects and deliverables, key dates, status, and associated timesheets.

A small holiday hospitality business:

  • Manage and respond to enquiries
  • Track bookings and special requests
  • Customer history
  • Advertising methods, expenditure and success rate

A medium-sized IT department:

  • An ITIL-inspired database to track all assets (software & hardware), and the relationships between each asset (for e.g. system A runs on Server X; relies on internally-developed component B, and an external component M)
  • Incident, change and risk management - which are crucial when managing multiples systems, and when auditers come visiting
  • List and track all projects, deliverables & deadlines
  • Maintain a central log of all suppliers, contracts, SLAs, and support options
  • Track Bugs, feature requests, ideas, and product roadmaps
  • An entire service/help desk

Essentially, these are complex business systems and they’re needed to help bring some sense of structure and coherence to every day work.

Now consider how much it would have cost in upfront procurement, customisation, roll out and training for most other products available which claim to do all of these things.

The icing on top

If the ability to reinvent the way business systems are developed and maintained wasn’t enough, there are three additional features which round off the picture nicely.

01 - An entire App Store offering single or packages of applications, each designed to address certain business needs. From CRM, to event management, recruitment, – it’s a very long list. Not only are all of these applications free, you can use them as a starting point and customise it to how you need them to work.

02 - The iPhone & Android apps which have been recently updated essentially ensure all your business systems are automatically mobile enabled. All applications built within Podio are available via the Podio app.

03 - Web forms, provides the ability to publish any application within Podio as a easy-to-use web form. For e.g. a Podio application designed to capture requests for a software development can beexposed as a form for business users to fill in via the company intraney.

Any alternatives?

In this loosely defined space it’s difficult to compare all alternatives without extensive research. However it is interesting to note that it’s a problem even the likes of Microsoft are recognising, and are working hard to present their view on what the solution is.

Likeswitch, while still not ready for primetime, is one such interesting platform to keep an eye on.

In summary

Add all of these things together and you start to see a very powerful platform emerge which in its own little way can make a big difference to day to day work, regardless of an organisation’s size, complexity or sector. We might just be seeing the future of how business systems are built, deployed and associated costs.