When I talk to people about the business we’re in, I’m often asked “what verticals do you serve?” That’s a tricky question for us, because our primary interest isn’t in particular industries per se, but rather in a particular type of customer. More often than not, our customers are relatively small companies in terms of staff, but have an outsized impact on the industries they work in. Sometimes the impact they have is truly extraordinary, and completely beyond the expectations most people have for companies that have fewer than 50 staff. It also is common for these companies to have some, or even most of their staff working at least part of the time from remote locations rather in a centralized office.

So when I get asked about verticals, or number of staff as a measure of how large our customers are, I’m often at a loss. It’s tough to talk to someone that has this take on business as a measure of anything, since our experience is so different. We’re less concerned with the industry and company size in terms of staff than we are about one thing – how they leverage automation to do their work.

Our ideal customer has effective use of technology baked into their business processes – so much so that they don’t see their technology use as something to consider as distinct from their work. It isn’t just that they have technology or have chosen to invest in technology – it’s how they use the technology they have to do things that would have required far more people and time in the past.

It really is quite the contrast. We have worked with companies that have spent substantial money on information technology, and yet seem to derive almost no business benefit from doing so. Conversely, we’ve worked with companies that have spent far less money, but the way they use what they have spent money on enables them to out produce their competitors substantially.

So what makes the difference? What makes some companies really good at using technology as a strategic advantage while other don’t seem to get nearly the benefit? Here’s a few things I’ve observed:

  • For successful companies, technology is personal. Yes, there are always back-end and back-office systems at play, but those things are largely invisible to people. Staff at successful companies have a small set of devices that are customized to their personal work styles and work the way they want them to. In really successful companies, this personalization and customization follows staff as they switch from device to device.

  • Along with this, successful companies view technology use from the perspective of the person, and not the perspective of the system(s). This is subtle and perhaps tough to grasp, but it boils down to giving people what they need to do their job (and selecting hardware and software that supports this) versus selecting systems based on abstract business need, and then requiring people to work the way the system tells them to.

  • Most importantly though, businesses that make effective use of technology implement technologies that allow staff to unload routine and tedious tasks on to the technology so that they can focus on what actually matters. Good automation that frees up thinking time for staff makes the difference. Companies that make use of people to feed data to machines or are required to provide guidance and supervision to automation that isn’t very smart lose.

People are great at working with other people and managing exceptions. You want your people working on things that are creative and enhance your business, not doing the same rote tasks day after day. Well chose automation can help with that. Badly selected systems end up forcing people into roles tending the automation or coming up with elaborate procedural work-arounds to make up for the deficiencies of “the system.” Take a look around at how your staff are using information technology in your business, and ask yourself if IT is making them more effective or if they’re spending time making the automation work. If it’s the latter, I’d suggest you need to take a hard look at how you’re spending your money and time. Success lies in the difference between good and bad automation.