When it comes to technological advances, rarely do businesses have the opportunity to look back and gain perspective on an ever-changing digital landscape.
This year was no exception.
As in the past, emerging technologies fundamentally changed the way companies do business, with the explosion in popularity of social networking websites, Smartphones and an expanding list of mobile applications in 2009. But this year, the real story was how businesses, large and small, public and private, integrated these technological advances into their day-to-day operations.
The Twitter "revolution"
The driving force behind the adoption of many new technologies boils down to two factors: time and money, according to Janet Harte, a certified business advisor at Washington State University-Vancouver.
That fact helps to explain the pace of adoption of websites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn by businesses looking to reach their target audience faster and cheaper than ever before.
According to a report by U.S. technology and market research company Forrester, an estimated four out of five online adults use social networking websites like Facebook. For many marketing firms and their clients, these online networks represent an unprecedented opportunity to carve out new audiences and perhaps, new customers.
Bruce Elgort, president and CEO of Elguji Software of Vancouver, has had a front-row seat to 2009's accelerating transition from traditional media to a more flexible online marketing model, helping to encourage what he called an inevitable and crucial "online conversation" with businesses about new technology.
Over the past year, organizations spanning the public-private divide like Vancouver's First Independent Bank, Southwest Washington Medical Center and Evergreen Public Schools, either adopted or reinforced their use of social networking tools to reach out to customers, patients and parents.
"Companies are adopting social media more than they've adopted any other paradigm in history," Elgort said.
Businesses go mobile
The IBM Institute for Business Value predicts the number of mobile Internet users to reach 1 billion by 2011. Harte said this widespread use of new technologies among the public at large – along with the flexibility and efficiency of mobile devices – makes these capabilities attractive for businesses as well.
At least one Vancouver-based firm, Instructional Technologies, Inc., has used mobile technology for years to better serve its clients, developing a series of safety programs for truck drivers streamed wirelessly to in-cab computer platforms.
And for ITI, the benefits of mobile technology didn't just stop at safety training. The software also optimizes ITI's tasks of billing, documenting and updating.
Joining the mobile bandwagon, Clark County Public Works, UPS and Clark Public Utilities this year either adopted or reinforced its use of wireless technology to capture, process and send data in real time.
And for agencies like CPU, the efficiencies achieved in terms of reduced man-hours and paperwork due to the use of mobile technologies is impressive. For example, a handheld device automatically reading up to 25,000 customer meters a day has fundamentally changed the way the utility operates.
Terry Paylor, product manager at Washougal-based mobile applications developer iCooper, said the capability to collect, analyze and manage data remotely is in-part driving the increased adoption of mobile devices and is the main focus of his company's software.
"Applications allow businesses to be much more productive and cost-effective in the tasks they do," Paylor said. "As the technology becomes available, I think businesses will definitely avail themselves to the cost savings that it will bring."
Factory-floor tech advances
Even on the factory-floor – the last bastion of low-tech gadgetry – technology moved forward by leaps and bounds in 2009.
Vancouver-based Applied Motion Systems Inc., a designer and builder of computer systems to run manufacturing equipment, recently developed a program that allows AMS employees to troubleshoot clients' machines from remote locations.
"It's using the highest levels of technology to do the grungiest tasks," said AMS communications manager Melanie Jennings. "Manufacturers may not call themselves high-tech, but anybody who is surviving is using high-tech principles."
The new imperative
Greg Rose, associate professor of management information systems at WSUV, put a focus on the fast pace of technological innovation as well as the strategy and rapid adaptability it requires.
Paylor at iCooper provided an example of this, pointing back to the beginning of 2009. In January, the number one mobile device was the Motorola Razr, he said. Today, the iPhone has eclipsed that record. "This goes to show that the number one technology coming into a particular year may not be the predominant technology at the end of the year," Paylor said.
According to Rose, time is the most important technological concept.
"The next big technology isn't about technology, but about being prepared and nimble," he said.