The cloud as a platform for growth
Behind just about every industry disruptor is our ability to store and access virtually unlimited amounts of data in 'the cloud'. It's best visualised as all your applications and data being managed in a data centre somewhere else, accessed through your mobile or IP network. And it enables small businesses to use the same tools as major players, providing cost savings and customer service efficiency.
"Put simply, it's taking the computing power you've been used to having on your desktop or servers, and giving you access to it no matter where you are, at any time you choose, on any device you choose," says Microsoft's Steven Miller, Business Group Director for the Microsoft Office division.
He says the cloud democratises access to technology.
"Smaller businesses have the most to gain from moving to the cloud. It's very easy for big companies to invest in large server rooms. The cloud plays to the inherent advantages of a small business - they are flexible and mobile, they can go out and win business in multiple areas. Working in the cloud lets them do that far more effectively, with far fewer resources and costs."
Yet many business owners are still reluctant to make the shift, with data security still cited as the major concern. According to the ABS' first survey on the use of cloud services, less than one in five companies reported using a 'paid cloud service'.
The security myth
"What's driving the growth in cloud usage is the fast, cheap bandwidth we now have", observes Dawie Verryne, CEO at PropertyIQ, a cloud-based platform for property and sales management that is also a joint venture between CoreLogic and Macquarie Business Banking.
"However, we do find some real estate agents think 'if I can't see the server and I don't know my data is in my basement, I'm not sure that it's secure.' But you need to compare your ability to secure your own server with cloud providers such as Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce – they have access to the best skills and the technology."
"The reality is that in many cases it's far more secure than what you have in your own environment, because it's always up to date," explains Miller. He says having data housed in Australia is also a common concern, particularly for the public sector and financial services. Microsoft has responded to that need by hosting services in two Australian data centres.
Affordable, pain free IT infrastructure
So how can a cloud-based platform fuel cost-effective growth for smaller businesses?
Verryne says the major benefit is cost efficiency. "It eliminates the need to think about IT infrastructure – you have an application on tap and consume it at a fraction of the price it could cost you to manage it yourself." No more server maintenance or application upgrades – and if one server goes down another takes over in seconds.
Anytime, anywhere, any device productivity
For anyone conducting business away from their desk, being able to access applications, data and workflows through the cloud is liberating. Miller confesses his two favourite cloud-based tools are Skype for business and Wunderlist – both helping him multi-task and get more done when he's away from the office. "I'm out and about a lot, I don't always have time to pick up the phone, and I can't always write things down."
Miller says Office 365 is Microsoft's fastest growing product, used by more than 90% of the Fortune 500 companies. He says it puts technology into a user's pocket, encapsulating Microsoft's philosophy that "work is a thing you do, not a place you go."
"We think about making sure people can get stuff done no matter where they are. I think the biggest single benefit of the cloud is how it enables that. You can achieve the things you want to achieve – anywhere, anytime."
Next generation sales service
The cloud is also a sales enabler. A new generation of buyers expect 24/7 service and seamless online access. The cloud gives you the information you need to guide a sales conversation or get documentation to a prospect before the meeting concludes.
PropertyIQ provides a single view of customers, properties,cash flow and staff performance for real estate businesses, integrating every management aspect, from trust accounting to open house inspections.
Verryne says he had the benefit of starting with a clean slate. "We thought, if we could choose the best technology for real estate in Australia, what would you use? So we teamed up with Salesforce as the engine behind our CRM system, and used a Xero interface to create the trust accounting system."
Verryne describes a typical scenario using PropertyIQ's mobile open house module. "The agent can register visitors on any device as they walk in, and immediately see if they have visited another inspection with that group recently, which helps them understand what they are looking for." They can then alert other agents in the house in real time, and start a more personalised sales conversation.
"The cloud liberates your information so your staff can access it at the point when it's valuable to them," he says.
What's next for the cloud?
"We're really only at the very beginning of what the cloud offers," Steven comments. "I think it will be driven by a more natural, human way of behaving, and richer ways of experiencing data." He gives the example of Delve, a feature of Office 365, which learns about the people you communicate with most often, and provides the information you need based on what you're already doing.
"Machine learning will be a big part of what the cloud will next enable next – bringing human interaction and data together."