If there is a one single thing which fast-growing firms have in common it is the use of cloud services. Not exactly the sort of thing which Richard Branson will devote his next bestseller to. But true, nonetheless.
Cloud services mean you can grow at unlimited speed. You can get new applications up and running in a fraction of the normal time. You can cut costs, access super-computing, allow workers to work anywhere, improve the responsiveness of your website and… well, the list just goes on and on.
Take app development. Normally you’d need to have a good grasp of coding. The cloud means you don’t. When insurer LV= wanted to increase the speed of its applications, it turned to cloud app platform Mendix. This is a “low-code/no-code” development environment which means people with no coding experience can link blocks of functionality together to make what they need.
LV= used Mendix to build an application which can handle web sales, customer self-service, claims management and financial obligations. Because of the speed and low cost of using a click-and-build method of creating the application, LV= had the luxury of playing with new features.
Rod Willmott, LV=’s fast-track innovation director, says: “We can find out the market reaction without the huge investments of time and money in IT. That’s a major advantage for us. We’re now at a stage when we can launch an insurance product with six weeks of development effort. That was unheard of.”
Cloud-based development means staff from varying locations can co-operate on the same project just by logging in. It is hardly a niche practice. Google, Dropbox and Sky have used Mendix to build applications.
Using a cloud service will massively reduce the cost of investing a new technology, as you are merely renting a pre-existing service. When Neal’s Yard Remedies wanted to roll out a promotions system to handle special offers and discounts it adopted Cybertill’s cloud-based promotions processing and analysis platform.
You can cut costs, access super-computing, allow workers to work anywhere, improve the responsiveness of your website… the list just goes on
Jason Cook, head of IT at Neal’s Yard Remedies, says: “With Cybertill we can offer centralised, regional and individual promotions. It’s incredibly easy to use and, as Cybertill is cloud based, we don’t have to wait overnight for the shops to download the promotion, they go live immediately.
“Cybertill has given us a greater insight into how promotions are working and how people are buying products. For example, are they combining products in baskets we didn’t expect, so we can then do a basket analysis? So we can look across the entire business and then drill down using a business tool, which gives us a great insight into how the business is working. And because the data is live, it means we can respond instantly to emerging trends. We have three people solely focused on analysing the information which comes out. Cybertill enriches our decision-making process about what we might promote together and we can see the impact of our promotions in the sales figures.”
For Mr Cook, who runs the IT systems by himself, the cloud means he can handle more and more work without needing to take on extra staff. He says: “We don’t have to worry about the cost of handling servers, tapes, backups, recovery and business continuity; we can just buy as a service. We don’t have to employ extra staff to look after the systems, it’s more scalable, as we grow and roll out more shops the scalability of the Cybertill platform is infinite really.” The same logic applies to any cloud service.
Sometimes a cloud service’s main appeal is to free up workers so they can concentrate on what really matters. Northumberland County Council needs to reimburse workers for expenses. It could be a real pain. Staff such as social workers are mobile, travelling door to door to visit their clientele. Asking them to come and submit expenses used to take up a whole day. A waste.
The new expenses process is located on the cloud. Firefighters, administration officials and others log in remotely to enter the details of their claims. With 4,500 staff using it, the bureaucracy and time saved is enormous. The service chosen by Northumberland County Council is called Expenses, created by Lincoln-based Software Europe, which is also a popular supplier of services across the NHS and similar government sectors.
Derek Brown, transactions manager at Northumberland County Council, says: “Our previous system did not link with our corporate policy, leaving it open to interpretation. For example, for staff travelling from home to multiple remote sites and back to their usual place of work, removing the mileage between home and the usual place of work from their claim was confusing and difficult. It would lead to errors and overclaiming, identified as part of manual auditing processes. The new system calculates this automatically, creating more accurate claims and lowering our costs.”
More importantly social workers can concentrate on social work. Firefighters on fighting fires.
Not that you have to be a huge organisation to benefit from cloud services. Even small firms and freelancers can use the cloud to improve efficiency and agility. Take Chris Gilchrist, the founder of web design agency Hitreach, based in Dundee. He used to spend far too much time on invoices.
Now he uses FreeAgent cloud-based accounting system, which automates billing and invoice tracking. He reckons he is saving £25,000 a year by automating his processes, not bad for a ten-strong firm. Every pound saved and every minute spared means he can focus resources on clients, and refining his commercial strategy.
There are many ways to get an edge in business. But few offer the returns, the simplicity and the extraordinary variety of moving to the cloud.