Before you computerize some of your business operations, here are 6 steps to ensure a successful start.
For the small business entrepreneur there are a number of preliminary questions to be resolved regarding computerization before venturing into it.
Although, it is pretty obvious that every business needs to computerize in order to improve on its efficiency and effectiveness.
The following questions are still pertinent.
- Should you computerize?
- If so, what operations should be computerized?
- How soon?
- At what cost?
- How should it be accomplished?
- Which software and hardware consultants/vendors should be engaged?
- What precautions should the firm take in order to ensure the success of the project?
The answers to some of these questions are, no doubt, clearly outside the scope of this post. However, we shall attempt to respond to most of them.
Although, there is no hard and fast approach to computerization, the process should be systematic. Below is an outline of the steps we recommend. In recommending these steps, we have assumed that the entrepreneur who wants to computerize some of his/her business operations may not personally have the needed expertise in computer software and hardware. This means that he/she has to depend extensively on outsiders, notably consultants and software and hardware vendors (sellers).
The recommended steps are as follow:
Step 1: Preliminary Investigations
For novice in computer novice, the purpose of the preliminary investigation is to acquire more information about computers, the uses to which the computer can be put in his/her business and associated costs.
This is to facilitate his or her decisions:
- On whether or not to computerize;
- When to computerize;
- How much to budget for the computerization exercise; and
- The activities to computerize for a start.
The investigation should be conducted by holding informal discussions with staff, friends, relations and business associates who are familiar with computers or who employ computers in their own businesses. Hardware and software vendors should also be consulted.
In particular, software vendors may be interested in showcasing application packages which are considered relevant and applicable to small business operations.
In conducting the investigations, the major concern should be:
- Gathering enough information to be able to decide on the operations to computerize;
- The objectives of the computerization efforts;
- The options available both, in terms of hardware and software;
- The probable costs;
- The duration of the computerization exercise; and
- Requirements for successful computerization.
The investigation should therefore continue until these objectives are achieved. We wish to emphasize that published articles, advertisements and books on computers or information technology and consultants can be very useful sources of information.
Finally the entrepreneur or manager may acquire the needed information by attending a relevant short course such as a computer appreciation course.
The danger associated with skipping this stage or doing it in a haphazard manner is that of ending up with a computer system that is unsuitable for your purposes. You could also end up being ripped off.
We know managers/business owners who acquired computers that they did not ever put to use before they became obsolete. This kind of situation should be avoided through preliminary consultations and investigations.
Step 2: Objectives of the Computerization Effort
On the basis of the information obtained from the preliminary investigation, the entrepreneur should specify what he or she needs the computers for and what he or she needs to achieve by computerizing those operations. For example, he/she may decide that at the initial stage, the computers will be used simply for processing, desktop publishing ‘internet/e-mail services and for maintaining a customer database.
The specific objective of word processing and desktop publishing may be to reduce the cost and improve on the quality of the letters, memoranda and other and booklet/pamphlets typed by the company. Ft may also be envisaged that this will impact positively on the company’s public image. For the internet/e-mail, the objectives may be to open up and maintain constant link with the outside world in the most efficient way and have unrestricted access to modem information network as a way of reaching out more to customers, venders and information on general developments in the world of business.
At this stage, these objectives can only be as specific as the entrepreneur’s knowledge/expertise in information technology and computers will permit However, information technology consultants can be quite helpful in this connection. There is also a high probability that in the course of the computerization exercise he/she will acquire sufficient additional computer knowledge and experience to warrant a revision of the objectives stated earlier. Otherwise, the objectives may have to be refined by the project consultants, if any.
Step 3: Request for Proposal/Quotations From Computer Software/Hardware Dealers
Upon the formation of clear intentions regarding his/her computer requirements, the entrepreneur is now in a position to reach out to software/hardware vendors.
To guide vendors in assessing his/her requirements, he/she would need to supply them the following information:
- The nature of his/her business whether manufacturing service or otherwise the type of goods or services provided;
- The size of the company in terms of sale strength, total assets, annual turnover, market coverage, and future expansion plans/projections;
- The operations to be computerized the objectives of the computerization exercise problems currently encountered in the operations in question;
- The kind and content of the reports or output to be generated by the computerized system from time to time; and
- The resident computer expertise available within the firm.
In addition, other specific information may be required depending on the specific operations to be computerized.
As a minimum, quotations from three different firms will be required. This will enable the company compare the terms and conditions proposed by different vendors. It will provide some of the facts needed by the entrepreneur to negotiate effectively win the vendor that will be selected.
We expect, and indeed recommend, that the quotations submitted by vendors will cover both software and hardware requirement. They should also include the cost of the installation and adaptation of the software package and the training of the staff who will use the system on a day-to-day basis.
The first advantage of this holistic approach (of obtaining quotations covering both hardware and software) is that inter-vendor comparisons will be easier. Also, it is easier to hold one supplier accountable for the entire system than to hold one accountable for the software and another for the hardware.
In the case of multiple suppliers, there is likely to be buck-passing if the system does not function as expected. Software vendors are familiar with the hardware requirements for their application packages and should have a vested interest in ensuring that both the hardware and software are compatible.
From, this perspective, software vendors are in a better position to design and implement any fairly complex and sophisticate computerized set of operations.
Step 4: Selection of a Vendor and Software/Hardware
Different vendors may recommend different types and brands of software and hardware. Each vendor’s submission should be evaluated, therefore, on the basis of three sets of factors, namely, vendor factors or considerations, software factors or considerations and hardware factors or considerations.
The vendor factors which should inform hardware/software choice are the:
(a) reputation and integrity of the vendor
(b) resources at the disposal of the vendors;
(c) vendor’s organizational capabilities, competence and experience,
(d) vendor’s standing in the market in terms of its ability to satisfy its existing client;
(e) suitability of the products and service being proposed by the vendor,
(f) quality of customer service offered by the vendor;
(g) vendor’s prices/fees.
Software considerations would include the followings:
- The Reliability of the Package: This implies its correctness and robustness. Does it perform well consistently (reliability)? Is it easily corrupted or grounded at the slightest sign of invalid data input or hardware problems (robustness)?
- Efficiency: This relates to both the time it takes the programme to execute the assigned job and the memory space requirement for doing so. Unfortunately, efficiency sometimes conflicts with program simplicity and clarity. Even then, simplicity and clarity should never be sacrificed for speed and memory space requirements.
- The Suitability of the Software: Is it able to do the job as required?
- Portability: A portable computer programme is one that can easily be adapted to run on computer systems other than the one for which it was originally designed. Adaptability is important if one is to eliminate the effort, time and expense of having to start from the scratch in attempt to produce a similar programme for another hardware.
- Maintainability: which is the ease with which a programme can be debugged improved upon with time.
- Testability: Is it possible to determine the suitability and reliability of the package based on a selected number of trial runs?
- Usability: Usability is related to user-friendliness. A good package should be easy to use and sufficiently practical even for amateurs. Various ways of achieving user-friendliness are through the use of windows, menus, help facilities, in-built tutorials and easy-to-follow manuals. Differences in user preferences often make the implementation of user friendliness a difficult and tricky matter.
This is refers to the factors which a buyer should take into account in evaluating the personal computer hardware being proposed by vendors.
The key considerations are as follows:
i. The Brand: The brand of the computer is certainly a factor. There are two broad categories; branded and unbranded (or clones). The attraction of branded computers is the assurance that no reputable company will put its brand name on a product which it does not trust. Branded computers are also backed up with warranty and other kinds of support services. But they are also a lot more expensive than clones.
ii. Memory Capacity: The memory capacity of a computer is the size of the main storage area where programmes which are being executed or awaiting execution and data which are being processed or awaiting processing are stored.
The bigger the memory the better, at least, in two respects. First, if the capacity is not large enough, it may be unable to accommodate some large packages. In other words, some packages may not run on the computer as a result of memory limitations. Second, limited memory capacity can slow down programme execution and data processing. Computer memory is measured in kilobytes, megabytes and gigabytes.
iii. Hard Disk Capacity: The hard disk is the secondary storage in which data, programmes and files are stored for long periods of time. Generally, you have to store a programme in the hard disk to be able to run it. The alternative is to run it from a diskette or a compact disk (CD). This option is largely impracticable these days because many programmes are too large to be stored in a diskette. Besides, running a programme from a diskette or CD is much slower than running it from the hard disk. Hard disk capacity determines how many programmes, files and how much data can be stored in your computer for use or retrieval as needed. The larger the hard disk the better. Hard disk capacity is measured in kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes.
iv. Speed: The speed of a computer is measured in megahertz (MHz). It determines how long it takes to carry out operations submitted to the computer. It also affects length of time it takes the computer to boot (that is, to be ready for use from the time it is switched on). If a computer is slow you may have to wait for three or more minutes for the computer to boot instead of say one minute or less. Similarly, instead of waiting for one minute or so for certain voluminous and complex operations to be executed, you may have to wait for a longer time. Therefore, the higher the speed the better. Some personal computers have a speed of 300 MHz while others are as high as 600 MHz.
v. Other Hardware Factors: Other hardware considerations that may be important to users are the size of the image area of the monitor, the quality of the text, colour and graphic display of the monitor, the number of keys on the keyboard (the more the better), and the portability of the computer (how much space it occupies the less the better). It is also important whether the computer has multimedia facilities (modern, CD drive and speakers). A modern is required for data communication (e-mail and internet services) while a CD drive and loudspeakers are essential for playing music and watching films.
Step 5: Concretize Budget and Sign Agreement with Vendor
Based on the quotations from vendors and decisions regarding preferred programmes/packages and hardware, it should be possible to draw up a budget indicating the volume and timing of expenditures for the computerization project. In order to be sure that the budget estimates are realistic, the entrepreneur can further shop around with the list of preferred hardware and application packages. This will enable him or her compare prices and get the best possible price deals and other terms.
Having concluded negotiations, there is need to enter into a concrete agreement with a vendor on the terms and conditions that have been mutually agreed between the parties. The agreement must be specific on the:
i. Timing of supply and installation;
iii. Types of hardware: systems unit, monitors, speakers, printers, ups (uninterrupted power supply), stabilizers, anti-glare shields, etc;
iv. Type and version of software to be installed (usually, the buyer should ensure that at least one of each of the following software types is installed – word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation, anti-virus, multi-media, internet, e-mail and data analysis package; and
v. Training for staff.
It is the responsibility of the vendor to design, write or adapt the packages that will be installed and to install them, test them and to train the entrepreneur and his employees on how to use them.
The entrepreneur and his/her managers should ensure that:
- All the agreed hardware parts are delivered correctly according to agreed specifications and are functioning properly.
- All the agreed software versions are installed and are functioning properly;
- The system is adequately tested to ensure that it is capable of intended specification bargained.
- Selected staff of the client organization are properly trained to use the system as agreed with the vendor.
- All the manuals, diskettes, compact disks and other spares which normally accompany the computer system have been dully supplied.
An expert should check these. Once these requirements have been fulfilled what is left is to ensure a smooth change over from the old uncomputerized system to the new computerized system.
However, before discarding the old manual system, there is need for caution. Both the old and the new systems should run side by side until one is sure that the new system is sufficiently reliable to function independently.
Finally, arrangements should be made to ensure that the vendor or consultants can be reached at short notice in times of difficulty. It is also important to evaluate and review the system from time to time to make sure that the needs of the organization are continuously being met by the computerized system.
Somewhere along the line, especially during the test-run stage, there are bound to be initial problems. The problems may arise because of situations not anticipated by the designers of the software or because of user unfamiliarity with the system.
They could also be due to unexpected hardware problems. This should be no course for alarm. A good vendor/consultant should have no difficulty dealing with these problems.
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