Cloud Computing for the Corporation

10/12/2010 5:56:27 PM

1. Managing Schedules

If you work in a large company, you know what a hassle it is to schedule even simple meetings. One person is free on Tuesday at 9:00, but another is out of the office, and yet other attendee is already booked for that time slot. Plus, you’re not even sure which meeting room is free at that time. You end up sending a flurry of emails back and forth, trying to find the one spot in everybody’s schedules that is free. There has to be a better way.

That better way is web-based scheduling. Everyone places his or her schedule in the cloud, which then enables the meeting’s organizer to easily see who’s available when. The cloud-based app finds the best time for all involved and schedules the meeting. No more emails, no more phone calls; it all happens automatically, in the cloud.

Here’s how it works. Let’s suppose you need to schedule a meeting sometime next week with a dozen different attendees. You punch in the details of the meeting and the desired attendees, and the scheduling app finds the first available timeslot when all attendees are free. Alternatively, the app might have to pick a timeslot when the maximum number of people can attend. This kind of “best case scenario” scheduling might be the only way to get your meeting on the calendar in a reasonable period of time.

Web-based scheduling programs let you schedule both in-person meetings and teleconferences with attendees from multiple locations. You’re not limited to just those people located in your office; you can work with the schedules of people around the country and even in different firms.

Of course, much of this can be accomplished with simple web-based calendar programs, such as Google Calendar ( and Yahoo! Calendar ( To take advantage of the more advanced automatic scheduling features, however, you need to use an industrial strength scheduling application, such as AppointmentQuest (, hitAppoint (, and Schedulebook ( Naturally, these enterprise-level apps cost more to use than the free web-based calendars; expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $200 subscription fees per month.

2. Managing Contact Lists

Salespeople have to deal with lots and lots of contacts. Not only is their address book full, they need to know when to contact certain clients, when follow-up calls are necessary, what the boss needs them to do today, and the like. This is difficult to do from a simple desktop contact management program, such as Microsoft Outlook, which merely acts as a storehouse for names and contact info. It’s also difficult to do when you’re on the road and need access to all your contacts.

The solution, of course, is a web-based contact management or customer resource management (CRM) application. These programs are tailored to the needs of a busy salesperson and come complete with features such as activity scheduling, appointment reminders, email templates, and the like.

Among the most popular of these applications are BigContacts (, Highrise (, and the market-leading Many of these apps include additional functions of use to large sales departments, including expense account management, sales activity reports, and various team management features. (

Using a web-based contact or CRM application can be as simple or as complex as you make it. You might need nothing more than access to a large list of contacts from any location; that’s the simple usage. On the other hand, you might want to customize the program so that you’re automatically flagged each day with a list of accounts to contact (and for what purposes). Some communication can even be automated, via the use of scheduled emails.

Imagine the typical day on the road for a traveling salesperson. You wake up in your hotel room, turn on your notebook computer, and log in to the hotel’s free wireless Internet connection. Using your web browser, you access the CRM application’s website and look at today’s list of tasks. You click a button to launch a list of scheduled emails to be sent to selected clients, and then scroll through the list of phone calls you need to make today. If you need more information about a particular client, just click that contact’s link. Everything you’ve entered about that client is stored online and instantly accessible. You can even click a link to view driving directions and a map to the first client you need to visit. And, to see how you’re doing against this month’s quota, you end the session by creating a detailed sales tracking report.

Naturally, the more detailed your needs, the more features of the application you’ll use. The key is that everything is stored and managed in the cloud so that you—and your sales manager—can access important contact information from anywhere at any time; all you need is an Internet connection.

3. Managing Projects

Most companies at one point or another have at least one big project going on—the type of project that involves multiple employees from multiple departments and perhaps multiple locations. Projects of this type have tons of individual pieces and parts, each of which dependent on the completion of a previous task. Keeping track of all the individual tasks—who’s doing what and when—can take a gargantuan effort.

That effort is made easier with the use of a web-based project management application. Project members can log in from any location to access the project’s master file; they can add or delete tasks, mark tasks as complete, enter detailed billing information for individual tasks, and so forth. And because the project is hosted in the cloud, every team member sees the same Gantt or PERT chart and the same list of tasks, instantly updated when any other member makes an edit.

Many project management applications include additional functions useful in the management of group projects. These features may include group to-do lists, web-based file sharing, message boards, time and cost tracking, and so on. And the most robust of these apps lets you manage multiple projects simultaneously; users can schedule their time across multiple projects and make sure they’re not doing two things at once.

As you might expect, these are not simple applications; they can’t be, given the enormity of many enterprise-level projects. Therefore, they’re expensive to license and often difficult to learn how to use. The most popular of these apps include AceProject (, Basecamp (, onProject (, and Project Insight (

4. Collaborating on Reports

When you work for a larger enterprise, chances are you get to write a lot of reports—and these days, the reports you write are often in collaboration with one or more other employees. For example, you may need to put together a monthly progress report that includes input from the company’s marketing, sales, and finance departments. Or perhaps you’re preparing a business plan that includes sections from all the company’s departments, or a company overview that includes bits and pieces from each and every office location. In short, you need some way to collaborate with other staffers when writing the report.

Fortunately, online collaboration is one of the chief benefits of cloud computing. Instead of emailing Microsoft Word documents across the company, opt instead for a web-based word processing program, such as Google Docs ( or Zoho Writer ( With one of these applications, everyone contributing to the report can access the same master document, online and in real time. When someone from one department adds his section to the document, all the other staffers immediately see the update.

The best web-based word processors work in conjunction with full-fledged web-based office suites. Google Docs, for example, encompasses word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation functions. Zoho’s suite of apps includes similar word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation functions—as well as a neat little project management module.

Collaborating on a web-based document is surprisingly easy. Most projects start with the team leader creating a new document online and giving it a bit of form—some sort of content and style template. The leader then assigns sections of the report to appropriate individuals, and provides the document URL to each individual. These contributors then work on their own sections of the report, logging in to the master document via their web browsers. When all the individual sections are complete, the project leader then looks at the document as a whole, editing for consistency and making sure that all appropriate data is included.

Most online word processing applications let you embed photos and other graphics; you may also be able to include spreadsheet files as part of the master document. The result is a quality document that reflects the true collaborative nature of the project.

5. Collaborating on Marketing Materials

Marketing is another area that benefits from cloud-enabled collaboration. Putting together a catalog requires data from several different departments. For example, effective direct mail campaign benefits from marketing, sales, and fulfillment input. Online PR needs participation from marketing, product, and technical staff.

When it comes to creating marketing materials, perhaps the best approach is to use a combination of web-based applications. Naturally, web-based email facilitates communication between departments; you can also benefit from web-based project management apps, to help keep all the pieces and parts in line.

The marketing materials themselves can be created using web-based word processing applications. This puts the draft materials on the web, for everyone on the team (including appropriate senior management) to see, comment on, and even contribute to. After everyone’s had his or her say, you can finalize the document and send it to your printer or website.

6. Collaborating on Expense Reports

If you spend your company’s money, you have to account for it. That’s the theory behind the reality of expense reports, the bane of all free-spending employees.

It’s not too difficult to create an expense report using your favorite spreadsheet software, but that isn’t always the best way to go. The paper or electronic report must then wend its way through your company’s various levels of approval: your boss, your boss’ boss, the accounting department, the HR department, and who knows how many more people before the accounting folks finally cut you a check.

A better solution for many companies is to put the expense reporting function on the web. Employees from any location can access the website to enter their expenses; it can even be accessed while employees are still traveling, with no need to wait for reimbursement until they get home. Then the web-based expense report gets electronically circulated to everyone who needs to approve it or, more likely, a link to the web-based report is emailed instead. Finally, after the last approval is entered (electronically, of course), the accounting department is notified and a check is cut. No costly paper trail is generated, no documents spend days waiting in someone’s inbox, and the entire process is expedited—which means employees get reimbursed faster.

Another benefit of web-based expense management is that you can quickly and easily ensure that all employees follow your company’s rules and regulations. Just add your own rulebase into the app’s management console, and employees will have to follow your company’s policies when entering their expenses.

Some of the most popular enterprise-level web-based expense reporting applications include Concur (, ExpensAble (, ExpensePoint (, and TimeConsultant ( Many web-based office management and workforce management applications also include expense reporting modules.

7. Collaborating on Budgets

While we’re on the topic of money, there’s no bigger project at many companies than creating next year’s budget. Every department is involved, with managers required to submit complete department budgets (the creation of which involves several departmental employees) that are then rolled up by the finance department into a complete company budget. That budget is seldom approved as is, of course, which means adjustments are then rolled back down the line; the departments make the required changes and resubmit their budgets, which are then rolled back up again to the final company budget. It’s a long and involved process.

Traditionally, each department works on its own budget spreadsheet, which is then emailed to the finance department for consolidation with those of other departments. Although that’s more efficient than moving sheets of greenbar paper around the office, it’s not as efficient as it could be.

Cloud computing offers a better approach. Instead of working on separate spreadsheets that are later consolidated, you can use a web-based application to create a single budget document for all departments on the web. Each department head enters his own budget data. The rolled-up budget is then created in real-time. When the big bosses need to slash certain expenditures, those changes are immediately reflected in the sections or pages for each individual department.

This type of online budgeting can be accomplished with a simple web-based spreadsheet, such as Google Spreadsheets ( or with a dedicated enterprise-level budgeting application, such as Host Budget ( In addition, many office management and project management applications include budgeting modules, so that may be an option for your particular firm.

8. Collaborating on Financial Statements

Assembling a monthly or year-end profit-and-loss statement or income statement is like a budget, but from the other side—that is, it requires input from all departments, but it measures what actually happened rather than making a projection.

Given the fast-paced nature of financial reporting these days, the accounting department needs final figures from all relevant department as soon as possible after month-end or year-end close. Instead of waiting for each department to mail or email its results, the entire process is accelerated when each department enters its data directly into a master spreadsheet. Because this spreadsheet is housed on the web, even departments in remote locations can have their data recognized as soon as they enter it.

Although you could use a web-based spreadsheet program, such as Google Spreadsheets, for this task, a better approach might be to invest in a web-based accounting program. For example, Host Consolidator ( bills itself as a web-based financial consolidation, analysis, and reporting application. Authorized individuals can enter appropriate data from any location, using any web browser. Once month-end or year-end data has been entered, the application automatically generates a variety of financial reports, including balance sheet, income statement, cash flow statement, and the like.

9. Collaborating on Presentations

Every company today sees more than its fair share of PowerPoint presentations. Want to introduce a new product to the sales force? Want to discuss HR hiring trends? Want to present last month’s financials to senior management? Then you need to put together a snazzy presentation—and show it from your laptop.

The problem with producing a large presentation is that you often need input from more than one person, department, or office. If you’re presenting company financials, for example, you need to get those from each individual department. If you’re presenting to your sales force, you might need to assemble product information from multiple divisions. If you’re giving an HR presentation, you may require input from the managers of all of your company’s physical locations.

As with most collaborations of this type, a collaborative presentation is problematic. Let’s face it, it’s just plain difficult to get everyone involved to submit work on time—and in the proper format. Anyone in charge of such a project has probably already gone bald from tearing his hair out.

Fortunately, cloud computing makes collaborating on presentations a whole lot easier. By creating a single presentation document, you don’t have to worry about consolidating information from multiple documents. And because that document is located in the cloud, any contributor can edit directly into the master document from any web browser; the project leader controls the look and feel of the presentation by applying a universal style or theme.

The most-used web-based presentation program today is Google Presentations, part of the Google Docs suite ( This application includes a lot of PowerPoint-like features, and can even import and export files in PowerPoint’s format. Other online presentation programs include Preezo ( and Zoho Show (

10. Presenting on the Road

Here’s an added benefit in presenting from the cloud: You can give your presentation anywhere without taking it with you. That’s right, you don’t have to bother loading a huge PowerPoint file onto your notebook PC’s hard disk. Instead, when you get to your destination, connect your notebook to the Internet, open your web-based presentation, and give that presentation in real time to your local audience. In fact, you don’t even have to take your notebook with you. You can use any computer at the host location to access and launch your presentation.

Even better, many web-based presentation programs let you give your presentation without even being there! That’s right, you can give a remote presentation—at multiple locations at the same time—by having all participants log in to the same web-based spreadsheet. Make sure they have read-only access, dial everyone into a conference call (so that you can provide the audio walkthrough), and then go into presentation mode. All attendees at all locations will see the same presentation, and you don’t even have to buy a plane ticket.

Some of these applications include additional features that add functionality to remote presentations. For example, Zoho Show includes integration with Zoho Chat, which lets you have real-time text-based interaction with interested participants. It’s like adding a chat room to your presentation; participants ask you questions and you respond, in real time, during the course of the presentation.

Then you have web-based applications such as Cisco’s WebEx ( and Microsoft Office Live Meeting ( These are hosted applications that let you stage live meetings and presentations—called web conferences—over the Internet. All group members log onto a designated website and then view the presenter’s presentation or participate in real-time audio and video discussions. Granted, a web conference of this sort may be expensive overkill, but it’s a very effective way to get the job done—especially if you want live feedback on what you’re presenting.

11. Accessing Documents on the Road

While we’re talking about using web-based applications on the road, remember that any application or document housed in the cloud is accessible from wherever you may be. All you need is a computer (and it doesn’t even have to be your computer) and Internet access. Log in to the appropriate site, enter your username and password, and then open whatever document you need. It’s the same document you worked on back in the office, so you don’t have to worry about remembering to synchronize files between computers. Make your changes on the road and you’ll see them when you get back to the office. You can even print your documents remotely, if your computer is connected to a printer or you have access to a hotel or conference hall business center.

This is one of the great things about cloud computing; it doesn’t matter where you are. You can be in the office, at a trade show, or visiting a client in another city, and you always have access to the same applications and documents. You don’t have to worry about taking the right copy of a document with you, or making sure you have a compatible version of the software program loaded on your notebook PC. You always use the same apps, and you always access the same docs. As long as you have a computer and Internet access, it’s just like you were in the office.

The Virtual Company

In the old days, running a business meant renting an office, arranging for a phone line and utilities, hiring a secretary, hiring a staff, and the like. Every morning you left home, commuted to the office, had the secretary handle your phone calls, and managed the staff. Every night you left the office and made the commute back home; you left your work at the office.

Today, however, you often don’t have to do any of that. Thanks to the Internet and web-based applications, you can run a one-person company from the comfort of your home. You don’t have to spend several hours a week commuting. You don’t have to rent expensive office space. You don’t have to hire a secretary or a staff. You can do everything yourself, from home, over the Internet.

And, if you decide to take a vacation or a long weekend or just visit the local coffeehouse for a few hours, you can take your office with you. Your notebook computer can access the Internet anywhere there’s a Wi-Fi hot spot, and the Internet is where all your applications and data are based. Your customers don’t have to know that you’re sipping a latte in the corner table at Starbucks or relaxing under an umbrella on the beach; all they know is that you’re returning their emails and working on important documents. That you’re doing so over the web, using web-based applications, is irrelevant.

The real power of cloud computing is that it lets you run your complete operation by yourself, from anywhere you happen to be. Web-based applications provide all the support you used to get from highly paid employees, and your office itself is in the cloud rather than in an expensive office building. Your costs are lower while your reach is wider. The cloud lets even the smallest business operate like a large enterprise over the web. This truly is the age of the virtual company. Are you taking advantage of all that the cloud has to offer?

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