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Mobilizing the Workforce—No, Really

It’s almost Summer—the season of road trips. And recently I had the privilege of driving across the country. While some might fear loss of productivity with a trip like that, I was actually able to work quite productively, mile after mile—thanks to a WiFi hotspot, Cisco’s VPN, and a laptop charger that plugged into the cigarette lighter. Of course, it helped having someone else do the driving. From Oakland, California to New York City, I participated in Webex meetings, wrote and edited documents, and generally got stuff done. But enough about me.

In Salt Lake City, I met up with kindred spirit Mike Sumsion, chief information officer for iTransact, which helps businesses accept customer payments via credit, debit, and gift cards, as well as electronic checks. “I’ve spent the last 10 years making sure our company could be productive from anywhere,” said Mike. Clearly, he’s one who likes to stay ahead of the curve: A blog post from last month cited a Cisco report that said 46 percent of people surveyed expect to be able to access their corporate network from their personal mobile devices.

Mike’s company employs 50 people. While it keeps customer service employees onsite, sales people can work from home with their same IP office phones and computers that they use in their cubicles. The company is also looking to extend this flexibility to other employees.

In a nutshell, iTransact offers services that let merchants accept transactions without a lot of heavy lifting.  Its service is offered directly to customers and their trusted advisors, like accounting firms, banks, and others. A dashboard interface lets them log in to check on the status of accounts billable, as well as manage real-time interactions remotely.

Given the sensitivity of the information that’s exchanged with each transaction, iTransact’s top concerns are compliance and security. So when it comes to working in the Cloud, things are still evolving. As an interim measure, the company uses Dropbox to make sure employees have updated documentation to share with everyone in real time. Each new employee is set up with a Dropbox account, providing instant access to all necessary documents for his/her role. Since Dropbox is Cloud based, employees who are traveling or working remotely can access the documents from wherever. Plus, it simplifies the information management. Even though the document repositories are managed by a single individual, all employees receive instantaneous updates.

Looking ahead, iTransact does see more Clouds on the horizon. “We’re building a gateway 2.0. that will absolutely use the Cloud. We’ll be able to drop a node anywhere in the world, fire up a virtual machine and have it accept transactions,” notes Mike. “We’ll be able to scale geographically, and offload geographically as needed, to the server that makes most sense,” he adds. And the icing on the cake: All the databases and self-contained software will allow for 100% uptime. This becomes especially important as they cater to smaller businesses, with transactions and updates happening constantly.

So what does a fast-moving small business see for its future? “It’ll be more mobile,” says Mike, without hesitating. “Look around you—increasingly, anyone can buy anything from anyone at any time. We need to manage the data, accordingly. The dashboard we built—that will become a mobile app; our internal employees will update records via their phones and customers’ transaction processes will become more mobile than they are now,” he adds.

Amen to that. As one who thrives on traveling—and getting stuff done regardless of where I am and regardless of whether I’m a customer or an employee—I think the future looks absolutely sunny. With a few clouds, of course.

To learn more about how Cisco can help your small business, click here.

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Ultimate Performance for the Next Generation Internet… at Work and at Play

Last week we celebrated World IPv6 Day and several of the world’s largest websites and internet service providers—including Facebook and Google—permanently enabled the next-generation Internet, IPv6. This new Internet protocol provides a greater number of addresses to support more people, more companies and more devices—especially given the explosive growth of smartphones and tablets. Time Magazine called the deployment of IPv6 “only the most significant architectural development in the history of the Internet.”

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Are You Aware of the Dangers Lurking in Free Apps?

Though fun and even useful, free apps can pose security risks to your users and your business

The old adage “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” has more than a kernel of truth to it when it comes to free applications. Free apps seem harmless, and they’re very tempting. Who doesn’t want a free version of Angry Birds? What’s wrong with a free banking app from your credit card company? But even if the app itself is legitimate and thoroughly vetted, it can still pose a security risk to the device it’s running on. Free apps are more dangerous to your employees and your network than they appear at first glance.

People can easily download a wide range of free apps for their smartphones and tablets as well as for your company’s computers. From wildly popular games like Angry Birds Space (which was downloaded three million times in only three days) to fitness trackers and social media tools, there’s a free app for anything anyone would want to do on his or her mobile device. Likewise, the Internet is teeming with free apps to customize desktops and work more easily. But the problem with free is that the program use is almost always paid for through advertising or information gathering—and it’s in those aspects where the danger often lies. Read More »

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6 Steps for Bolstering Your Business Defenses

This checklist can help you secure your network and critical company data

Every small business needs to protect its network and data from viruses, malware, and other malicious threats. A breach could cost your company not only lost revenue and the expense of recovering damaged systems but also your reputation in the marketplace. “Reputation is lost overnight. It takes a lifetime to get it back,” says Danny Pang, who runs a cyber café, Geek Terminal, in Singapore.

If you don’t currently have any safeguards in place or you’re not sure what they are, where do you start in bolstering your network and data security? Here are six steps you can take to fortify your defenses.

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Social Media: A Swiss Army Knife for SMBs

Social media has become so ingrained in our culture these days that much of the time, we’re not even aware of it as anything “other.” But for some, it’s way more than just a recreational outlet. It turns out that small businesses that are using social media are seeing the biggest gains, according to the 2011 Social Media Marketing Industry Report: from new partnerships to qualified leads to improved sales to reduced marketing costs.

Gartner’s Anthony Bradley defines social media this way: “At its foundation, social media is a set of technologies and channels targeted at forming and enabling a potentially massive community of participants to productively collaborate. IT tools to support collaboration have existed for decades. But social-media technologies, such as social networking, wikis and blogs, enable collaboration on a much grander scale and support tapping the power of the collective in ways previously unachievable.”

One company that’s doing exactly that is FanAxcess.com, an Oakland, California-based start up that aims to match up-and-coming musicians with potential brand sponsors, while also creating a simpler and more cost-effective pathway for advertisers to reach target markets.

Brands are always seeking fresh ways to differentiate—and personify—themselves with standout spokespersons. But, that can be tough when there’s always the same pool of big fish to choose from. “We provide a forum for artists to create very specific profiles that give insight into who they—and their fan bases—are. So, if you’re an advertiser, you can search artists by audience (based on their social media fans across sites or, their average number of live fans), by genre, by eco-friendliness (or other indicators), and by upcoming tours and promotions,” explains Suzanne Mino Koga, co-founder, artist manager and music marketing consultant. This creates a dynamic library for advertisers to source from, to find just the right match in terms of brand feel/aspirations and audience it wishes to target. “And along the way, musical artists can tap into new potential revenue streams and raise their visibility,” adds Koga.

For other businesses that use social media such as Yelp, Facebook or Twitter as a way to market and build community with their customers, there’s something else to think about: the caliber of the type of customers you attract when you engage in social media. These folks are more digitally connected. And that means they can be a powerful form of advertising on your behalf. So when your customers come to your place of business, you need to provide guest wireless access to let them be your spokespersons and to keep them coming back.

Consistently monitoring social media activity is also critical. In fact, according to Indaba, 66% of businesses were using or were planning  to use Social media monitoring for their business. Remember to watch out for potential security issues, as pointed out in a recent Cisco Small Business blog: As the line between personal and professional blurs, employees who might monitor or update your accounts could unknowingly introduce malware picked up from their own personal accounts.

Just as a Swiss Army knife can be a great productivity tool, so can social media—with care and clarity around how you want to use it, you can expand your community of customers and partners. Not only that, you can sharpen your results: If customers can be more productive interacting with your brand—and amplifying their experiences—you’ve carved out a really great success story.

If you’re going to be in Houston next week, be sure to register for The Small Business Tour: Time to Thrive, on June 7. Cisco executive Lief Koepsel will talk about how small businesses can use social media—as well as cloud and mobility—to reach new levels of productivity and success.

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