Your office at your fingertips


6 Sep 2007

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The web is now a virtual office where executives can use free resources and work from anywhere.

It is easy for a business to view the internet as a productivity-destroying black hole that well-meaning employees get sucked into.

But early adopters like animator Claire Wilson (pictured) and branding strategist Krishna De know better.

De depends on a myriad of online applications, or apps, daily in the course of running her branding strategy firm, citing reasons as varied as lead generation, delivering services to clients, inter-office communication and project management.

One web feature that De and many other business people swear by is an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) reader such as Google Reader or Bloglines.

RSS readers keep track of websites, news articles, blogs and other internet sources that a modern business relies on to keep on top of news and trends by ‘feeding’ them all into a single app where they are all updated automatically.

“Make sure that you only subscribe to RSS feeds from websites that are going to provide you with the content that you need to support your business,” advises De.

Wilson, freelance animator and owner of Gingerpixel.com is also an avid user of RSS for keeping abreast of sites for reference and inspiration as well as marketing and business advice.

“This way I don’t have to have a huge list of bookmarks or individually visit all these different sites,” Wilson notes.

RSS readers like Google Reader give the user the ability to share favourite sites, stories or feeds with others. This is where online apps come into their own: sharing and collaboration.

“Google views the internet as the ideal platform for applications that allow collaboration,” says John Herlihy, European director of online sales and applications for Google.

“It also means that updates and enhancements can be added in real time and the user can experience these without any significant upgrades or complicated installations.”

Herlihy is of the opinion that use of online office apps like Google Docs & Spreadsheets means a business can avoid users storing multiple copies and versions of the same file in disparate locations.

“It allows teams to collaborate on the same documents, and allows the creator to choose who can access, and amend the documents,” adds Herlihy.

“It’s the type of functionality that employees enjoy as it can make their work easier and more productive,” he points out.

There are so many online apps out there, both free and fee-based, that it seems like a struggle to choose which ones might suit, and taking on too many may well end up wasting your work day instead of streamlining it.

Annette Clancy, owner of Interactions management consultancy, says that she must see an obvious use for an online app before she uses it.

“The question about using this sort of technology is; does it make my life more or less manageable?”, she asks.

In order to use online apps to your advantage she recommends that an SME manager would explore which part of their business they would like to enhance productivity and cost effectiveness in, be it communication, marketing, or project management.

For business communication Wilson has a few key apps including Skype and Gmail. She uses the internet-based phone application Skype for both instant messaging and for calls to her photography and animation clients.

Gmail is how she gets all of her email: “Although I have separate emails for different businesses, all of my email addresses point to one Gmail account,” says Wilson.

Wilson also finds Google Calendar invaluable to keep herself organised and set reminders, especially because she juggles two separate businesses; animation and photography.

As more and more firms have a need to share information both internally and with clients, collaboration has become the word of the day.

“The nice thing about web-based applications is that they are centralised so everyone can see information together online and in one place instead of having to have separate bits of information on different desktops,” says Jason Freid, owner of 37signals, a provider of collaborative software which was named one of the net’s rising stars by Time magazine.

Another problem in the average office, points out Freid, is chasing post-it notes and scraps of paper and trying to remember who it was you talked to three months ago on a certain business account.

Fried says: “In the course of a day you jot something down but you don’t have a running history of conversations and information.

37signals, says Fried, tries to build apps like HighRise that can solve these problems, and are not looking to take the place of the traditional word-processing and spreadsheet programmes but rather complement them.

“Online apps suit small and medium-sized businesses better mainly because a lot of SMEs don’t have an IT department or IT staff and don’t want to worry about it, they just want to get stuff done,” he says.

Out of all the web utilities out there, social networking sites bear the brunt of criticism for time-wasting and uselessness. In fact many Irish organisations have completely banned sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo.

In US businesses we see a marked difference: Financial News reported that most of the top investment banks were on Facebook.

Some 19.7pc of Goldman’s staff are on Facebook along with 10.4pc of UBS and 10.3pc of Morgan Stanley.

“Online applications provide us business leaders with great low and even no-cost platforms to build our brand, generate more leads for our business and increase both productivity and profits,” De says.

“Online applications provide us business leaders with great low and even no-cost platforms to build our brand, generate more leads for our business and increase both productivity and profits,” De says.

Learning to use every trick in the (online) book

Annette Clancy has a busy life and knows every trick in the book when it comes to streamlining her workflow.

Apart from running Interactions, her own management consultancy, she is also a qualified psychotherapist and she is currently undertaking a research doctorate.

Although she is a self-proclaimed evangelist for blogging as a useful tool for doing business, she remains cautious when it comes to adopting any old online applications, and would sooner endorse carefully chosen ones that are intuitive and user-friendly.

“I have a number of applications that I use. When I see a use for them I would certainly embrace them.

“Skype is a fabulous tool. The thing that really works about it is the ability to both send text messages and speak on the phone – sometimes you’re not available for a conversation so you can send a text. And obviously the fact that it’s cheap is superb.”

On a daily basis she uses Gmail, Bloglines and MSN Messenger but in
particular finds Google Alerts indispensable.

“I have 10 alerts set up with what I’m looking for and I have it delivered into my mailbox every morning,” she says.

This is where apps seems especially useful. “I use this to track my own business online because people are going to talk about you so it’s good to know what they are saying and where they are saying it.”

By Marie Boran