As technology advances, businesses have more tools available to them to improve their operations. Unfortunately, with the seemingly endless options available it can sometimes be confusing to hear talk of "business technology." There are a number of different types of technology that can be of use to business owners. Some are nearly essential to all businesses, while others are only useful to companies operating within specific niches. Developing a solid understanding of business technology and the technological options available to different companies can help you figure out just what sort of technological upgrades your business might need.
What Is Business Technology?
Not all technology is considered business technology. So what is business technology, then? Simply put, business technology is any form of tech that is integrated directly into the operation of a business. Having a TV in your waiting room likely wouldn't be considered business technology, but a streaming TV channel that your company develops and distributes the content for very much would. The difference lies in the business integration; it's the difference between a piece of technology being present at your place of business and a piece of technology being an active part of your business. If this seems confusing, think of a few examples of technology and how they're used in business to clear things up.
Internet and Networking
The internet has become an essential part of almost all points of modern life. Almost all businesses use the internet for communication, software updates, data syncing and placing product orders. Many companies even use the internet as an incentive for customers, offering free WiFi as a means to draw in customers who might otherwise go to places who don't have it. The larger a company is, the more it will rely on the internet for a wide range of purposes. Almost all data reporting, credit card batch processing and general corporate communication is done online these days.
Almost as important as the internet is the network that supports internet access. Not only does networking connect computers, cash registers and other essential hardware, but it also provides protection against hacking and data theft. Technologies such as virtual private networks (VPNs) are used to securely connect offices in different physical locations over the internet, and server networks allow access to data that's stored on multiple physical servers. There are very few modern businesses that could continue their operation as though nothing happened if their networks and internet access were shut down.
Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing
Another major implementation of business technology comes in the form of what's known as business intelligence (BI). BI is a major business field that uses computer software to sort and manage huge amounts of information to make it available to users when it's needed. BI is useful for small companies, but where it shines is the big multinational corporations that have a presence all over the globe. Without a BI implementation, there's no way that these companies could keep track of all of their data without a significant effort and a lot of wasted time and money.
One aspect of BI that's used by a lot of companies is the concept of data warehousing. Instead of keeping all of a company's data in one location and making the entire bit available to everyone in the company, data warehousing sets aside select portions of the data in a smaller database and makes it available to those who need only that data. This speeds up the process of data access and modification since users only access the warehouse database that they need and don't have to sort through data that they don't use. The warehouse databases sync with the main company database to keep all information up to date, but users never have to mess with the core database in its entirety.
Though the World Wide Web and the internet are often used as interchangeable terms, they're actually two different things. The Web is accessed through the internet, but it isn't actually the internet itself. The Web is everything that you want to access on the internet, including all of the websites and other content that you use on a daily basis. A business transferring data over the internet doesn't involve accessing the Web at all, but setting up a website, online store or social media account does.
Because of the large amount of time that consumers spend online, having a Web presence is all but essential for businesses these days. Online shopping is a growing consumer trend, so companies that rely on consumer sales need to have some way to tap into that market. Social media is a major advertising venue that many turn to before choosing one company over another; ignore it at your own risk. Businesses need to have a web presence beyond just a social media account or static web page, and those companies that embrace the Web are often much more successful than those who don't.
Automation, an Emerging Technology
Automation is an emerging technology that has multiple uses in business. Manufacturing embraced automation years ago, but a wide range of automated options are available for companies in pretty much every field. These include sensors to detect hazardous situations or leaks, automated security systems and even sensor-based lighting and thermostats to help your company save money on its electric bills. Some restaurants have embraced automation for tasks such as filling fry baskets or cooking common foods that need to fry for a specific period of time. Even time-lock safes represent a form of automation that takes safe control out of the hands of the manager as a means of deterring theft.
Cash registers and other storefront hardware have come a long way from the clunky mechanical units of years gone by. The majority of cash registers now have computer monitors and custom point-of-sale (POS) software running them, often with integrated features such as credit card processing and one-touch coupon or discount options. Some cash registers have even been replaced by tablet computers running POS apps, reducing the entire footprint of the register to the size of a tablet stand. Theft-prevention technology, security systems and other examples of modern technology have also become integrated into the storefront to the point that stores without several examples of technology are almost impossible to find.
If you step into any office you'll likely see a number of types of technology. Even small backroom offices tend to pack in a lot of tech, especially if there's a significant amount of technology elsewhere in the store. Offices no larger than a walk-in closet often contain computers, small servers or backup systems, routers or other internet hardware, security equipment and other technology such as fax machines or copiers. There may also be equipment to manage customer-facing technologies such as satellite radio systems or television broadcasts, though those aren't necessarily express examples of business technology.
Larger offices obviously have more examples of technology, including more advanced computer networks and other equipment. That's not even getting into the various pieces of software that are present on all of those computers. In addition to the operating systems and productivity suites installed on the computers, many have specialized software for data synchronization, commissary ordering and other business-specific tasks as well.
Accounting and Payroll Software
Technology is often used to automate accounting and payroll as well. Long gone are the days when paychecks are signed by hand; most companies track payroll using specialized computer software, either hosted on their own servers or accessible through an accountant. The software does the heavy lifting of tracking hours and calculating taxes or other deductions, leaving accountants more time to perform payroll audits and make sure that everyone is getting paid what they're supposed to. When errors are found, the software makes it easy to look up the problem and track down its source without having to shuffle through stacks of paper or folders full of records.
In many cases, even clocking in and clocking out has been shifted to technology. While there are some businesses that still use old-fashioned time clocks and physical time cards, it's much more common to swipe a card, scan an ID badge or clock in using a computer touch screen. This not only feeds the information directly into the accounting system without someone having to manually enter it, but it also saves a lot of money on time cards and other supplies as well.
As mentioned before, manufacturing has embraced automation and robotics to increase precision and general productivity on the assembly floor. There's more to manufacturing technology than just robotic arms, however. Advanced technology allows manufacturers to test circuits or assembled pieces more quickly, while computer-aided design (CAD) software makes the early stages of product design much more efficient than they were in the past. Manufacturing is often much faster to adopt new technologies than other types of business, simply because the net gains of technology are most readily apparent in this field.
Rapid Prototyping and 3D Printing
Though 3D printing is most widely used by manufacturing and industry, a large number of business sectors are embracing the technology for different purposes. A 3D printer can make physical representations of products as mock-ups or prototypes well before they're ready to enter the manufacturing stage. A 3D-printed model also gives executives a better idea of what a final product might look like than sketches or computer-generated pictures would. In some cases, 3D printers can even be used to make replacement parts or custom tools used to complete specific tasks within a company.
As 3D printing technology advances, so do the potential uses of the printers. Syringe-based 3D printers can pipe frosting or chocolate to create custom desserts that wouldn't be possible using standard means. Laser-based printers can fuse tiny flakes of metal together, creating complex parts for engines or other equipment that are more efficient than traditional parts. While 3D printing isn't an essential business technology in many sectors, there are some sectors where it's already changing everything.
Emerging Business Technologies
Technology is constantly evolving, producing new options for businesses on a regular basis. Some new technologies make a major splash in the business world, while others are only useful for specific applications and don't have a widespread impact. Still, it's important to keep abreast of new and emerging technologies to evaluate their potential use in your business. This doesn't mean you have to jump on every new product that comes about, of course.
When something new hits the market, take the time to evaluate it and ask some questions. What is the purpose of the technology? How does it differ from existing options that are already on the market? Will it significantly improve the operation of your company? Not every new technology will hold up under scrutiny; to be honest, most won't. Still, that technology you pass on today might be perfect for your business in a few years after the price drops a bit. By staying up-to-date on business technology and making smart tech adoption decisions, you'll stay ahead of the curve without breaking the bank on unnecessary tech.
Jack Gerard is a freelance writer and editor with over 15 years of experience writing about topics related to business and finance. His body of work includes copy for small businesses, how-to guides for entrepreneurs and even editing and copy work for international corporations.