On the fourth season of the TV show "The Office," the team dealt with "Dunder Mifflin Infinity," an initiative at the company to become more tech-savvy.
Big surprise: The team was pretty inept at it.
In real life, technology decisions are no laughing matter for small or growing businesses--but it's easy to worry you'll be as inept as Michael, Ryan and the rest of the folks from the show.
Everyone understands that technology is necessary for an organization to grow and compete. But how do you know you're investing in the right technology--hardware, software and apps--that will serve your business needs and won't be obsolete in six months?
Here are eight tips for making smart decisions and mitigating risks:
1. Have a plan
When you're starting a business, you have a lot to consider--and actively planning your technology spend should be at or near the top of the list.
Think of everything from point of sale to accounting to inventory to customer acquisition and retention... and how devices, apps and services will specifically fill those needs.
If your purchases are based on a solid plan, dollars will go much farther in the long run.
2. Get a second opinion
Find a trusted technology expert with expertise in your field or the tech you plan to use, and have him or her validate your plans. A second opinion can help uncover unforeseen costs and assure that you've chosen the right stuff.
3. Don't spend too much
The old adage that you get what you pay for isn't as accurate as it used to be.
These days, you can have access to inexpensive and heavily customized solutions for not a lot of cash. The cloud and Software as a Service has led to apps and portals that basically do almost anything you might want, at a fraction of the cost of traditional solutions of the past.
4. Don't buy equipment if you don't have to
Putting your apps and data in the cloud will help keep your network environment simple and restrain costs.
When you buy hardware, for the most part, your environment will be easier to manage if you run on a single platform, with a consistent look and feel for each device.
The core infrastructure of your network, which includes routers, wireless access points and switches, should be as standard and vanilla as possible. This provides flexibility in hiring vendors.
Standard tools are also usually inexpensive.
6. Make sure tools are interoperable
Exports of critical sales information can't always be imported into QuickBooks. Various tools need to be able to intercommunicate to keep from having staff needlessly waste time entering data repeatedly. Make sure each aspect your workflows work with the next.
7. Check out the vendors
You can feel safe buying gear from Linksys, which is part of Cisco. A three-month-old company with no track record, not so much.
You want to feel confident that the company stands by its product, won't trick you with unexpected costs and offers top-notch support.
8. Decide how you will use technology to find new customers
For new companies, finding new customers determines whether they live or die. Every technology purchase must support that objective, whether it's tools that help sales people more productive or digital investments to build brand awareness.
By following these eight tips, you can stretch your budget and make smart technology investments that help you stay ahead of the competition. And, not look like the dummies on "The Office."