A Standard Software Toolset for Business?

9 Categories of software tool your business probably needs

Fifteen years ago, there were probably two tools which anyone running a business needed: Microsoft Office and an email system. It’s a bit different these days. We’ve become more and more reliant on technology to help us manage our work, and many of the processes that were previously handled by paper- or human-based systems are now handled by software.

Every business will need software specific to their industry, but there are some categories of tool which would probably benefit almost any business with more than a couple of employees…

1. Cloud-based Email, Calendar and Document Editing Tools

This is a no-brainer really. Any company that hasn’t out-sourced the management of these core business tools to a cloud provider is probably carrying an unnecessary risk.

Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 are the two major players in this space. Both offer tight integration with desktop and mobile operating systems, and all the features we’d expect: email, calendar, online documents and file storage.

Office is so ubiquitous in business that it’s the obvious choice for many firms, and it has the advantage of tight integration with the desktop office suite and Sharepoint. Google’s offering is easier to integrate into external services and has excellent collaborative editing features.

If you have a lot of meetings, tools like Solid and Weld can help with scheduling beyond the basic calendar functions provided by Calendars.

2. A Tool to Store and Organise Documents/Information

This may seem obvious, but I still see plenty of companies that store and archive their documents on paper and on-site fileservers. Not only does this increase the risk of loss through physical damage, it also makes it harder for remote workers to access information.

Both Google Apps and Office 365 provide basic cloud storage in the form of Drive and OneDrive, but it’s impossible to do much more than store and share files with them.

For those using Office 365, Sharepoint is the obvious choice here. Even for those who aren’t, it’s by far the best tool I’ve seen in this space. It’s incredibly powerful in the right hands, and can do much more than store files. It’s also fully integrated with the rest of the Office suite, both online and on desktop. The only downside is the difficulty connecting it to non-Microsoft tools.

Basecamp and Huddle are both viable alternatives and bring some nice collaboration and social features to the table, though neither can match Sharepoint for power and flexibility.

3. HR and Payroll Tools

The management of employee information, holidays, expenses, payroll, billing and the like can be error-prone and takes a lot of time. It often involves repetitive work and archaic, complex processes. The right HR tools allow us to automate many of these processes and either reduce our HR staff or free them up to focus on more important things.

Zenefits is currently making big waves in this area (they raised $500m in April ’15, but have had some problems since). It offers an all-in-one cloud HR system covering everything from timesheets and payroll to the management of employee benefits and stock options. As with most cloud services, they also provide an API, allowing integration with other software. WhenIWork is a great tool for firms that need to schedule employee’s shifts.

For smaller companies, tools like Harvest can help with time tracking and expenses, while QuickBooks, Freshbooks and Kashflow take the pain out of invoicing and accounting. For larger companies, there are enterprise-level accounting packages like Intact and Aquila, although I’ve no experience with either.

4. Telephony and Video Conferencing Tools

A phone system of some sort is crucial to almost every business. While a landline and a simple PBX is suitable for many companies, VOIP technologies like Twillo have given rise to a whole host of cloud-based virtual telephony systems. Unlike traditional PBXs, tools like CloudPhone provide the ability to route calls to employees laptops, mobiles and home phones, facilitating remote working for those who were previously tied to their desks. They also reduce the need to install and maintain expensive hardware systems and allows for almost infinite scalability.

Because they’re cloud-based and sometimes provide APIs, it’s possible to integrate virtual PBX systems with other business tools, allowing call recordings to be linked with CRM records, for example.

While not necessary for all businesses, video conferencing is crucial for distributed teams. Citrix have some very capable offerings, but newer companies like HighFive offer a cheap and thoroughly modern solution.

5. An Internal Chat Tool

While phone systems are considered critical to nearly all business, internal IM platforms are often overlooked. In my experience, a decent chat application has a whole host of benefits and can massively reduce internal email use.

There are hundreds of IM apps out there, and while Skype somehow remains popular, it’s Slack that’s currently taking the world by storm.

Update: I’ve written a bit more about Slack here:

6. Social Media Tools

It’s universally accepted that modern businesses will have a social media presence of some sort: Facebook and Twitter as a minimum.

The management of these channels can be a massive stumbling block for companies without a dedicated social media marketing team, but it’s also an area that’s ready-made for automation since nearly every social media platform includes a wide array of integrations.

Buffer can be a godsend here, allowing us to queue posts and deliver them to multiple social channels according to a pre-defined schedule. It also provides the ability to track engagement metrics. Hootsuite provides a more capable, but much more complex ecosystem of social media management tools.

For companies that use social media for customer service, both Intercom and ZenDesk have good integrations.

7. Task and Project Management Tools

The choice of task and project management software will depend hugely on a company’s industry and business model. JIRA, Sprintly and Pivotal Tracker are common in agile software companies, while Asana is also common, and much more generic.

Even where more full-featured project management software is used, simple tools like Trello can be incredibly useful for managing specific processes.

All of these services are easy to integrate with external systems and are far more powerful as part of a larger, integrated system than on their own.

8. A Knowledge-Base

The capture, development and sharing of knowledge is critical to almost every business. While most of the corporate knowledge about what we do will be kept in project management software, emails, archived documents and the like, it’s just as important to capture and share knowledge about how we do our thing.

It’s all-too-common for an employee to spend some time solving a problem, only to find out later that his coworker already solved it some days before, but omitted to record her solution. The same is true of process — I can’t count the number of times I’ve given much thought to the design of an efficient workflow and later found someone else in the company struggling to achieve the same outcome, unaware of my process.

This compartmentalisation of knowledge is particularly pronounced in companies which are organised by function (or department) rather than by deliverable (or product). We call it the silo mentality. The combination of an open, trusting culture and good communication tools can help alleviate this to some extent, but it won’t solve it.

We need some place where employees can capture and share their knowledge. We might use an internal wiki for this: Sharepoint Wikis are suitable but limited, while Atlassian’s Confluence is purpose-built to solve this problem. More technical firms might use MediaWiki or markdown files and Github to store their knowledge.

While I’ve think it’s best to store almost all company knowledge in one place, there’s one sort of information that is best stored in it’s own system: passwords. For that, 1Password for teams is probably the best choice.

9. Information Radiators

In the world of Agile Software Development, information radiators are defined thus:

An Information radiator is a display posted in a place where people can see it as they work or walk by. It shows readers information they care about without having to ask anyone a question. This means more communication with fewer interruptions.

Displaying information on an office wall not only improves communication; it also encourages a culture of openness and helps employees become accountable to each other, rather than to management.

It’s become common practice to display data on screens in the workplace across a range of industries.

Sales teams display call stats and sales figures. Customer service teams display response times and the latest tickets. Marketing teams show engagement stats.

Because they have APIs, most of the tools outlined above are able to expose their data. Tools like Geckoboard can help put that data on the walls of our offices.

[A quick note: information radiators are a great way to motivate teams, encourage shared responsibility and build trust — I’ll write another article on the subject at some point. In the meantime, beware vanity metrics.]

Of course, in addition to some of these more basic tools, there’s a whole host of other applications and services than can help run a business more efficiently. One example is Envoy. While it isn’t applicable to every business, if you’re a large company with a reception des, something like this could be very useful.

To conclude, I’m constantly amazed at the number of companies that fail to use technology to best effect. I discuss some potential reasons for that in another article.

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