Technology has never been more fundamental to business success. From robust collaboration tools to enable remote work to the ability to accept contactless payments and quickly enable “buy online, pickup in store,” companies with flexible, forward-looking IT capabilities were, and continue to be, better able to weather whatever the pandemic throws at them.
CFOs recognize this. Data from the Brainyard Fall 2020 State of the CFO Role Survey shows that the only area getting new spending, among eight options, is technology.
That led us to ask: Is there a strategy that helps entrepreneurs build resilient, innovative and cost-effective technology infrastructure right from the start? To answer that, we reached out to Christine Sanni, who is both an entrepreneur herself and an expert adviser on the application of technology, particularly when consumed as services. Sanni has spent 15 years in the technology industry and co-founded ConservGeo, a financing and development-consulting firm focused on funding projects that benefit the environment.
Sanni is a believer in the concept of “technology agnosticism” for small businesses and startups. Here’s why.
Brainyard: Please explain the term ‘technology agnostic’ so that when a businessperson speaks with her IT staff or service provider, they’re on the same page.
Christine Sanni: To approach your technology needs in an agnostic way, or to be agnostic, means that your decision to use or not use a specific technology is an educated decision. You are open to learning about, applying and leveraging technologies in a meaningful way to achieve your desired results versus just choosing the cheapest solution or the brand you’re most familiar with, or even that your IT expert recommends.
Instead, you ask a question: Will this technology meet my organization’s needs today, facilitate growth tomorrow and most importantly forward our long-term goals for the future? If you can answer yes, great. If you answer no, are you open to a solution you may not be familiar with?
If so, you have an IT-agnostic philosophy.
BY: We’re talking to founders and finance leaders here, and most are nodding and thinking, ‘Sure, that makes sense.’ What objections might they face? Technologists do tend to have strong POVs and expertise and certifications in certain technologies.
CS: The question is very interesting as I must be cognizant of the fact that the pandemic has significantly impacted internal resources. Therefore, small businesses today may not have a technology expert in-house overseeing technology needs. If this is your experience, there is a large community of technology experts, or advisers, who can assist your organization from an agnostic approach. And so, it’s appropriate for me to shed a little light on this community and how they serve all markets. Technology advisers’ value, to you the business owner, is in their ability to be agnostic. They have access to many different technology providers and can assess your requirements and help you map solutions.
Where there is an in-house person or team, they are most likely facing budget pressure, increased demand or both. So I am not talking about the tech equivalent of a zero-based budget, where you get down to the ‘iOS versus Android’ or ‘Mac versus Windows’ level and start dictating which devices employees must use. What’s important in the current landscape are more high-stakes concepts, like ‘on-premises versus cloud.’ The decision of selecting a device is far less risky than whether or not your customer’s data sits in a compliant and secure cloud infrastructure or colocation data center versus in your ‘technology closet’ at an office that may now be closed.
BY: A response might be that you’re now revisiting the choice of technology with each new project — including potentially climbing a new tech learning curve — unless you make some core choices early on and favor products that build on your existing knowledge.
CS: Learning curves can be perceived as hurdles, or they can be perceived as an expansion of acumen and understanding. Either way, yes, a CIO or equivalent in-house staffer or your adviser does need to assist in planning for the long-term, and aligning choices with your extended plans for growth, versus focusing on one transaction.
BY: Speaking of high level, companies are being told they better get on the greatly over-hyped ‘digital transformation’ train RIGHT NOW! What about that?
CS: I find ‘digital transformation’ less about any specific technology and more about how new or existing technologies are used to achieve much-needed business results. Important questions come to mind when looking at this area. Answering questions like this help you make educated decisions and remain agnostic.
|How will I keep my customers’ data secure?|
|How will I improve customer experience in a digital-first society?|
|How will I create a better experience for my employees while they work from home?|
BY: For so many companies, money is tight, and they’re worried about making a wrong move that could waste money or limit growth.
CS: As an entrepreneur, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of wanting to make no mistakes, especially when it comes to technology. Now more than ever, we see the social component to running a business and leveraging technology to connect with customers in not just any way but a meaningful way. So, technology is important and therefore must be used wisely to continue to grow.
In that regard, making technological upgrades to your business is always worth it if you can do it. If the technology doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of your business. Be willing to make a change until you get it right.
Don’t be shy about saying you need to try before you buy. Ask for reference customers in similar businesses to yours, and talk to peers about how they are successfully using technology. You can lessen risk by implementing proof-of-concept projects or taking advantage of trial periods so that you can determine if a technology is right for your organization prior to getting into a long-term contract.
BY: Does purchasing a suite or cluster of integrated software from one provider clash with the agnostic philosophy? Do companies need to do many proofs of concept — what a tech person might call a ‘best-of-breed’ strategy?
CS: Well, it depends on how businesses are looking at or defining the term ‘best-of-breed.’ If it means to you that you simply recognize the brand therefore you buy, that defeats the purpose of being agnostic. If you are defining best-of-breed by the supplier’s ability to fully respond to your ‘now’ and ‘future’ needs, sure, explore this. But an integrated suite of services is describing something different in today’s current climate. It goes back to ‘digital transformation’ itself and the efficiency it can establish for a business owner in need. The ‘how to,’ if you will.
Say that your business is now completely remote, meaning you’ve gone as far as selling your real estate or expiring your lease. Your people and the way in which your consumers access your product or services are completely digital, and you are now in need of not just voice as a service but desktop as a service, cloud as a service, security as a service, fintech as a service and so on.
When purchasing any service, you are trusting that the provider will house and maintain these technology solutions you plan to leverage for your business. In this regard, a solution provider that can take all of your needs and provide you with a suite of integrated services uniquely layered to help you meet your goals would be preferred versus you having to engage with multiple suppliers to deliver the same result.
For this reason, I believe suppliers have an opportunity to meet customers where they are and focus on ‘digital transformation themselves.’ How do we create a better experience for the customer by layering/integrating a suite of services that can meet more needs and facilitate more impact within our client base? This is an opportunity for innovation on both sides of this argument. If your value-add is best-of-breed, can you innovate past that message? If your value-add is that you can provide the customer with a suite of services, can you innovate in a way that makes the integration itself highly consumable?
BY: Two-part question. Part 1: Say I as a small-business owner have decided to hire an in-house IT professional. What questions would you use to tease out whether a candidate is right for your business?
CS: My favorite question when considering a candidate is ‘Why do you want to work with a company whose mission is ‘x’?’ This question reveals whether a candidate is aligned with your ‘why’ as a business owner. If the answer is in alignment with your ‘why,’ trust can be established at the door. Irrespective of the position you are hiring for, whatever their role, that individual is working and making decisions for the bigger picture, and is more likely than not thinking about how their decisions impact the big picture.
BY: Part 2, same question for a managed service provider or systems integrator. In the past we’ve covered the contractual reasons a provider might not recommend a certain vendor’s product, and we do know that service providers, more and more, are specializing in select verticals. What else should a business owner look for?
CS: I would pose the same question here. Business is about relationships. Let go of the titles for a moment, the technology itself and the transactions that may be contemplated. Can you truly have a synergetic relationship with a person or entity that is not aligned with where you are looking to go? You could, but would there be trust? Would it be a healthy one?
So, it’s important that as a business owner you remember why you got started in your business in the first place. If you’ve lost sight of your ‘why,’ reestablish it, and then do not compromise what your business stands for in any interaction. This is business with purpose.
Pro Tip: Too often, IT teams see technology provider relationships as “set it and forget it.” However, it behooves businesses to ensure their trust is warranted and get these relationships right. LEARN MORE.
BY: All companies want to keep their data safe and portable. What advice do you give young businesses around managing data?
CS: There are many things to think about when it comes to data itself. There is a significant market capitalization that is being established around the use of data, with expectations it will reach around $274 billion by 2022.
At a high level, businesses are analyzing data to identify market trends, consumer behavior and economic outlook to inform subsequent business decisions. This insight becomes extremely valuable and therefore may be sold to third parties. Data monetization is a growing area.
What does that mean to a young business owner? Data is critical to your business. Securing your customer’s data must be a priority, and what you learn from that same data is a key factor in the decision-making process for growing your business.
It is important that you have a tool that allows you to understand your data and interpret it in a meaningful way.
BY: Security is an area where technologists tend to have preferred suppliers, just as accounting pros do with financial technology. Are there places to make exceptions to an agnostic strategy?
CS: Well, you’d have to assume that evaluating a preferred supplier is a deviation from being agnostic. I do not believe it is. Being agnostic does not mean that you only select suppliers you’ve never heard of or that were not recommended to you. Agnostic simply means that your decision was not based on a singular premise, or bias if you will. In simplest forms, to be technology agnostic is to be open.
BY: What didn’t we ask that companies should know as they formulate a tech strategy?
CS: Change is not coming. Change is here. It will be uncomfortable simply because it is a new experience. See this as an opportunity and enjoy it! I wish you much success in your journey and may you continue to create the impact you seek.
Christine Sanni, co-chairman, ConservGeo Corp., is an award-winning technology leader, human-centered innovator, strategist, speaker, and impact-focused entrepreneur committed to shaping the future. She was recognized in 2019 by Channel Partners as a Circle of Excellence Recipient. Christine is an expert adviser on the application of technologies consumed as a service. She has also served on boards advising on how to improve the customer experience and service delivery of SaaS solutions.
Her passions in life include both people and business as she believes business should be built with purpose, with humanity in mind. She is an author and steps out from behind the desk to mentor and coach those seeking to create impact globally. She believes the future is digital and is actively innovating in the space of blockchain technology to improve access to the digital world for all people.