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Fri, 22 Jan 2010 21:25:04 GMT

Gain control over your growing business

Business management software can be just the ticket to help you cope with the expansion of your small business, helping you to manage costs and ensure the entire organization is using the same data to make decisions.

Introducing new software into your workplace can make you anxious. It takes time and money for you and your employees to learn a new application. And the gains are never guaranteed.

However, for an organization that is growing - and resolved to keep operations under control at the same time - stepping up to a business management software package could in fact calm your nerves.

Sometimes referred to as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, business management software is not just for large businesses anymore. More and more software vendors are gearing products to small business needs. And market research now shows that small and medium businesses worldwide are adopting the software at an even faster pace than their bigger counterparts.

What is business management software?
Business management software today is typically a package of modules that help you gain control of business practices. They include components for managing financial information, payroll, supply chains, human resources, inventory, manufacturing processes, distribution, and customer relationships. Different software vendors provide specialized modules to match specific business needs.

Small businesses are finding that this type of software can help them stabilize, manage and gain insights into their businesses as they expand and add people and complexity to their organization. Advanced financial management and customer relationship management (CRM) tools have emerged as particularly important to smaller businesses working to stay competitive and do more with fewer employees.

Knowing when you need it
Deciding when to buy business management software can be difficult for small businesses working with limited IT budgets. The cost to set up a system in your office is generally more expensive than buying and installing most desktop or server software. Often it requires adding database software if you don't have it installed already.

Here are some signs that it might be time for your business to invest in business management software:

  • You need one set of financial numbers. If sales, finance and other business units all seem to generate and work from different revenue numbers, a business management program can deliver one version of "the truth" because everybody is using the same system. Accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger and payroll functions are all integrated into one product used company-wide. Managers will benefit by getting a better understanding of the company's overall performance.
  • You need standard business processes. As your organization becomes more departmentalized, you might find some group in your company performing similar tasks but using different methods and computer systems. Standardizing those processes and using a single, integrated computer system can save time, increase productivity and reduce staffing.
  • You need automated business functions. Operations that once took 10 minutes a day to complete can become a much larger task for businesses that grow and become complex. Automation of repetitive tasks can noticeably reduce staff hours and at the same time improve efficiency of the process. Microsoft Business Solutions Navision (Microsoft Dynamics NAV) and Microsoft Business Solutions Great Plains (Microsoft Dynamics GP) are examples of cost-effective software suites with tools that can streamline financial management, banking, sales, purchasing, human resources, and inventory. And both come in a "standard edition" suited for small businesses.

Tips for buying
When shopping for business management software, an IT consultant or solution provider typically guides you through the selection and implementation process. But here are some things to keep in mind as you work with an expert to find the best solution for your business.

  • Look for a strong financial management component. This is what most small businesses require first. In a survey of 600 small and medium businesses by the Yankee Group, more than one-third of the companies reported that effectively managing cash flow for long-term viability is among their top business challenges. More than 70 per cent of these already used financial accounting and payroll applications.
  • Make sure it can grow with you. Learn if there is an easy mechanism to add users to the system as staff increases and - if your licence to use the software is based on user count - how much it will cost. You also should understand the limits of the software to accommodate new users and transactions, and when the added volume impacts performance.
  • Assess the flexibility of the solution. Does the software lock you into processes that may not serve you well in the future? Anticipate that processes will change over time and expect the solution to offer choices for screen presentation, workflow, size of data fields and the like.
  • Find out how well modules integrate with each other and other common software. The data you produce in your business should be easily accessible by the other business management modules you use. You should be able to seamlessly switch between applications that manage employees, accounting, or operations and not have to re-enter data, which wastes time and can lead to errors. Ideally, you should be able to use these modules with common desktop software such as Microsoft Word and Excel.
  • Learn about migration and customization costs. If your existing systems contain business data, your solution provider should inform you of the cost to migrate the data into a new business management program. They should also divulge if code customization is required to make an existing system work with a new one.
  • Ask about the reporting tools. The solution should provide easy-to-use, and easy-to-configure reporting tools that make data meaningful and actionable.

Finally, as with any purchase of goods and services, check the reliability of the solution provider you work with, and ensure they'll be around to support you after they have completed the setup and training. You'll also want to know how long the software manufacturer plans to support the products your provider recommends.

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