Cloud-Based Solutions Extend Office Productivity Possibilities

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In today’s business world agility is everything. What clever businesses are discovering is that a cloud-app strategy pushes the concept of collaboration, improved workflow and idea sharing among office and remote workers taking productivity to new heights.

Requiring only a web browser interface, cloud-based apps paired with – take your pick – a communication-centric device, such as a desktop computer, laptop, netbook, iPad, Smartphone, etc., are prompting companies to write the next chapter on how employees communicate, collaborate and stay productive.

Assurity Life Insurance Company, for example, uses iPipeline’s leading on-demand iGO e-App across its broker distribution channel consisting of almost 30,000 brokers located nationwide, with the exception of New York State. Using on-line application forms for individual life, health and annuity products, the company has reduced the application cycle time by 50 percent and has doubled the number of applications processed without needing additional staff.

“Once our brokers use e-App there’s no going back to using paper applications,” says Pat Criger, director new business services at Assurity. eApps, makes it easier for Assurity to stay ahead of the game in its industry, she adds.

Criger attributes the company’s productivity gains to the elimination of errors caused by manual input versus digital, greatly improved digital workflow processes that make all supplemental application forms available on-line, the elimination of back and forth emailing or snail mail, the use of digital signatures, and the ability to order medical exams, when required, directly in the workflow. In 2011, the company has plans to feed the policy administration system directly in e-App, for even greater productivity.

Needing only a web browser and Internet connection, brokers can work from the office or on laptops while on the road.
According to Jeffrey Kaplan, managing director at consulting company ThinkStrategies, iPipeline is an example of what to expect on the next frontier of cloud apps. “iPipeline is an example of what I call the Saasification, or digitization, of business processes within certain industries,” he says.

While iPipeline represents the next frontier of cloud-apps, hundreds of vendors are vying for a spot next to current popular cloud vendors, such as Google, Microsoft, NetSuite and Salesforce.com, to name several.

There’s no surprise for the ambush. IDC estimates that worldwide revenue from public IT cloud services exceeded 16 billion in 2009 and is forecast to reach $55.5 billion in 2014.

Al Hilwa, program director for application development software at IDC, the SMB market represents the cloud app sweet spot for productivity and value. “If the option is sticking with old systems then going to the cloud gives companies the impetus to rejuvenate its tools,” he says.

Whether used as a tactical solution or a comprehensive business strategy, a service-driven business model can help companies reduce costs and allow them to leverage technology they might not otherwise be positioned to deploy, thereby reducing barriers to adoption.

New world
When it comes cloud computing, leading customer relationship management (CRM) vendor Salesforce.com knows all about driving down business costs and driving up business benefits. The company’s game-changing Salesforce Chatter leverages social networks within its CRM solution to create a user experience familiar to Facebook, connecting apps and people.

A real-time Chatter feed creates enterprise conversation for more timely communication, collaboration and effective decision-making. As with Salesforce.com apps, users can stay connected accessing Salesforce Chatter on any Blackberry, Windows Mobile device or iPhone.

While Salesforce is changing the competitive landscape in CRM apps, Google energized cloud-apps when it offered free web-based office productivity tools. Today, the vendor boasts that more than two million businesses run Google apps, such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs, as their primary mail and productivity system.

“Google Docs and apps make collaboration easier. Employees can access all of their documents, from the most common types of mobile devices, via a browser and know they’re getting access to the latest version,” says Rajen Sheth, Google’s group product manager for Google Apps.

Microsoft also offers a free cloud version of Office 2010, while both vendors offer more robust product versions for a fee. Other productivity web apps: Zoho, Live Documents and Open Office, to name a few.

Bergelectric, an electrical contracting and engineering firm based in Los Angeles, Calif., is a big fan of Google’s Gmail, and Google Apps, rolling it out to its 2000 plus employees who work in the company’s 12 remote offices and in the field on a variety of devices.

“We were using Groupwise 6.5 before Google and had no calendaring or collaboration features. The introduction to Google was seamless and improved the quality of our applications and services,” says Kyle Swafford, IT director at Bergelectric. Another plus, always having the latest updates and features.

Ready to adopt cloud-apps where they make sense, Bergelectric also uses ToolWatch, an on-demand inventory management system.

While web apps initially targeted the front office the cloud soon moved into back office targeting applications such as financial management, CRM and ERP.

NetSuite, for example, offers a web-based integrated business management software suite for financials, CRM, inventory and e-commerce. Intuit also addresses back office with Intuit Online Payroll that integrates with QuickBooks Online Edition.

The new world for cloud apps is the B-to-B, or inter-enterprise market featuring e-Procurement and Expense Reporting software from vendors such as Coupa.

First class citizen
The mobile web is quickly advancing from second-class citizen to first-class citizen with advances in mobile browser technology. Business users are gobbling up Apple’s iPad and clamoring for access to cloud applications with their iPhones, Blackberrys, Droids as well as other mobile devices such as media tablets and Netbooks when not parked in the office.

But what about the cloud and printing capabilities? “For a while, print capabilities held back cloud app adoption but that’s changing,” Jim Lyons, columnist for Lyra’s HardCopy Observer from Lyra Research. Today, according to Lyons, there’s little difference printing from a client app versus a cloud app.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs recently promised native print capability for the iPad responding to market discontent over the missing function. However, iPad users can scan Apple’s App Store for third-party apps for wireless printing. Vendors aren’t sitting still.

HP recently introduced ePrint for web connected and cloud aware printing, allowing users to print content from anywhere, anytime. HP’s ePrint printers have a unique email address that allows the sender to deliver a print the same way they would send an email message, according to the company. Users can also send documents to print through an HP ePrint mobile app on a Smartphone device to a home, office or public printer location.

Teaming up with PrinterOn, a vendor specializing in mobile printing solutions, Ricoh recently announced Ricoh Hotspot technology for its multifunction printers (MFPs). HotSpot MFPs enable mobile users the ability to print remotely and provides a hard-copy output solution for users of laptops, handheld devices and web-enabled Smartphones. Ricoh earlier introduced a mobile printing app for Blackberry Smartphone’s.

Another option for access to content from anywhere is Pogoplug, a multimedia sharing device, the company refers to it as a personal cloud, think of it as a storage device. Today the Pogoplug is compatible with Epson and HP printers made since 2005.

Finally on the printer front, and still in the lab, is Google Cloud Print, an initiative to enable any web, desktop or mobile app on any device to print to any printer in the world.

 

For more office productivity news and tips, go to our special Office Productivity Trends & Tactics special report.


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