It’s fascinating to look back to what people of the past predicted our technology would look like today, and even more so when we see their truly fantastical ideas become a reality. This also allows us to anticipate what will someday be the norm in business technology. Here’s four technologies that we’re looking forward to seeing more of.
Spread of Virtual Reality This technology has recently seen great improvements, and so it shouldn’t be long before it becomes a staple in day-to-day activities. The sophisticated software that powers the immersive environments users experience is in the running to be as impactful as the personal desktop computer. Facebook even dropped a cool $2 billion to pick up Oculus in 2014, and today the headset is available for $499 at major technology retailers.
Plus, despite the dismissive attitude many held towards the initially video gaming-oriented technology, a lot of effort has gone into brainstorming new and innovative uses that a workplace could have for VR.
Interaction through Ambient Proximity The use of beacon technology now allows smartphone users an increased ability to interact with their surroundings, proving that the Internet of Things shows continued promise in the future. These beacons allow two nearby devices to share information via their connection to each other, allowing PayPal and Apple to simplify their mobile payment processes.
Additionally, other retailers are using these beacons to collect data on in-store customer behaviors--Under Armor being a prominent example.
Welcome to the Drone Zone Many major companies have begun to experiment with the use of drones. Facebook, for one, has plans to try expanding the reach of Internet connectivity with solar-powered drones, and both Amazon and Google are working towards making delivery-drones a reality.
Other companies are adding their innovations to the technology as well: Finnish startup Shaper Shape have made drones capable of independently making decisions through their programming. Drones like these will have the capability to essentially “learn” about their surroundings and identify objects from above.
Improved Social Payments One of the most irksome parts of lunch meetings are when the time comes to pay the bill. However, that irksomeness will soon be a thing of the past, as socially-focused mobile apps, like the PayPal-powered Venmo and Square’s Cash, are swiftly becoming self-contained social networks. Meanwhile, major social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are working to integrate mobile payments into their offerings as well.
Are any of these technologies more exciting to you than the others? What are some other examples of near-future tech that you can’t wait to make use of? Tell us what you think in the comments section!
How many ways can you think of to share a file between two workstations? The more ways you know how to share a file, the less chance there is that you’ll be stuck without access to critical files due to an Internet outage. This week’s tip will inform you of four different ways to help your business share files.
Sharing via External Solutions Sharing through external pieces of hardware is an option, either via a portable flash drive or USB hard disk drive. While these are helpful if you don’t have a better way to transport files, doing so comes with several risks, including data loss or theft. If you lose your flash drive, you better hope that it has a pass code or some type of encryption. Otherwise, nothing is stopping someone from taking your device and plugging it into their own computer to find the contents.
Share through Email Text files and other small documents can be sent through email. It’s as simple as attaching them to the message and sending it. Microsoft Outlook, Gmail, or your preferred email solution will all have the ability to attach files and send them alongside the message, though the size restraint can be a bit of a problem. Before assuming that you’ll be fine sending an attachment via an email, be sure to understand what your solution’s limitations are.
Share through a Network Drive If you’ve tried to share a file with someone else in the office, it’s recommended that you use a network drive. Connecting your organization’s endpoints through either a physical network or virtual network, rooted in a central location, allows you to drop files into the network drive for other users to access. Just make sure that there’s some sort of protocol for organizing files in your network drive--otherwise you’ll find your drive quickly becoming disorganized, and a messy network is a good way to misplace files.
Share Through the Cloud The best way to share files is with cloud-based storage. For example, uploading a file to Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive allows anyone who’s allowed to view or edit it to do so. Through shared folders and drives in the cloud, you can collaborate on files remotely. Even better, you can edit permissions to restrict access to important files on a per user level.
Cars aren’t as simple as they used to be, particularly in regard to the technology that’s inside them. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a new vehicle that isn’t vulnerable in some way to threats like malware or cyber attacks. The researchers at Kaspersky have proven that many apps that are connected to smart cars aren’t as secure as drivers expect them to be.
A pair of researchers have found that nine of the most popular car-connected apps have lackluster security features that keep them from protecting the drivers as best they can. The reason is simply because the apps store the usernames and passwords on the phones connected to the vehicles… without encryption. Considering how it’s a relatively simple feat for a hacker to root a smartphone, the hacker could easily gain access to the victim’s vehicle. In a worst-case scenario, a hacker could use fraudulent versions of these apps to tether the phone to a car and steal the user’s credentials, or use an overlay attack to accomplish virtually the same thing.
These types of attacks are nothing new, but they are concerning--especially since they could eventually turn into the beginnings of an epidemic, one which sweeps across roadways and threatens anyone who dares to set foot in a computerized vehicle.
Hackers that lurk online, hoping to find the latest threats and security troubles to take advantage of, have also shown interest in these exploits. Researchers have found posts that advertise the sale of these car app credentials, including PINs and VINs for various vehicles from all sorts of different manufacturers. When looking at these vulnerabilities, it has become clear that vehicle manufacturers have failed to adapt to the improvements (and failures) of vehicular technology security. While the connectivity is a great way to sell a car, you’d be hard-pressed to find a salesman who will admit that the vehicle you’re interested in could be vulnerable to hackers.
Therefore, the automotive industry will be left with an ultimatum: either step up and make vehicles more secure from online threats, or face the frustration of dealing with angry customers, eventually eroding their will enough to forcefully bring change to the manufacturing process.
What are your thoughts on owning a smart car? Do you think it’s worth the extra worry that comes from owning yet another device that needs protecting, or do you think that it’s worth the risk for the extra convenience? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to subscribe to our blog for more articles about technology and security.
A recent survey shows that 43 percent of IT decision makers plan on investing more in the cloud in 2017. When you compare this projection with the steady cloud adoption rate we’ve seen over the past decade, it becomes obvious that the cloud is the next evolution of business computing. As exciting as this is, it’s important to adopt the cloud with a degree of caution.
What we mean by this is that it’s natural for businesses to dive headfirst into market trends without first doing all of the due diligence needed to adequately prepare their business model for the change. The cloud is no different; it’s estimated that by 2018, Software-as-a-Service will make up 59 percent of the workload hosted in the cloud, making it a valuable asset for any growing business. Sometimes they might expect that by jumping right into it, they can more immediately expect to reap the benefits of the cloud. However, this can often have negative side-effects that could harm your business.
One important consideration you have to make when deciding to deploy a cloud solution for your business, is what kind of cloud you’d like to have. There are three different models of cloud computing. They are:
Private Cloud - Normally hosted and managed by your company, either on premises or at a colocation center. The point is to have access to a dedicated cloud solution, while not giving up the management responsibilities. Usually deployed by larger organizations that need to focus on security or compliance, as the private cloud is typically more expensive than the other models.
Public Cloud - A solution that is sold to users by a third-party provider. These solutions include storage, applications, communications systems, and full-scale computing environments. The public cloud can typically be obtained at a lower price point as hardware deployment and bandwidth and application costs are covered by the solution provider. Since there are little-to-no upfront capital costs associated with adopting a public cloud offering, these interfaces are perfect for the small and medium-sized business.
Hybrid Cloud - This solution uses elements of both public and private cloud platforms. More cost efficient than a full-scale private cloud solution, an organization chooses which parts of their IT infrastructure they want to internalize. This allows a company to maintain control over certain aspects of their infrastructure, while utilizing public cloud offerings for aspects of the business where security or compliance isn’t as much of a consideration.
Knowing which cloud strategy your company can afford will dictate whether or not a private or hybrid cloud strategy can be a consideration. If it isn’t, then any dedicated public cloud solution will need to guarantee services aren’t interrupted for extended periods of time, and manage and maintain the solution with the attention-to-detail that you would expect from any member of your own business’ management. This type of service only comes from trained IT professionals who know exactly what they are doing--especially with complicated solutions like cloud computing.
Net It On can offer your business the cloud services that you need at a reasonable monthly expense, without any of the responsibility of maintaining or managing it. Whether you want a cloud-based email system, data storage, or any other type of hosted utility, we’ve got you covered. To learn more, call us at (732) 360-2999.
Let’s say that you’re in the comfort of your own home working on a major project that needs to be completed before you turn in for the night. However, the moment you take out a tablet or laptop, your toddler runs up to you, curious about what you’re trying to do. This makes it rather difficult to get anything done, especially since most toddlers suffer from what’s known as the “mine” syndrome.
The Mine Syndrome Explained The mindset of a toddler is rather simple. Children are self-centered, and as such, everything belongs to them. Children don’t like being told that they can’t have something, so even a logical statement like “I’m using this laptop for work. Go sit down and wait your turn,” will fall on deaf ears. You can try it if you want, but it will, more likely than not, never work. And of course, you can’t just tell them that it’s not theirs, as this will only make them want the device even more.
This type of distraction means that you’ll have to improvise if you want to get any work done. Net It On suggests the following five practices to help get you past the toddler roadblock, so long as you remember who’s really the boss in this situation.
Create a Diversion Children have short attention spans, so it’s best to take advantage of them when you can. If you’re desperate to get a moment of work in, try turning on the television or start up a movie--preferably something with lots of color, noise, and fast edits.
Switch One Thing Out for Another You might be able to trick your toddler into thinking that they have the device, even if they don’t. Hide your laptop or tablet in a place that they can’t see and hand them something that looks like the device. If they aren’t old enough to know any better, you can pull a fast one on them by doing this, all while they just run off with “the device” thinking that they have gotten the better of you. This might be only a temporary fix, so keep an eye out for when they realize they’ve been duped.
Hide in the Bathroom If you’re having trouble getting work done, you can always try hunkering down in one of the most private places in your household: the bathroom. Surely your toddler knows that the porcelain throne is a place for privacy… right? Right? Well, it’s worth a try, at least.
Get a Babysitter If the work that needs to be done is critical and time-sensitive, it might be worth just hiring a babysitter to handle the responsibility of watching your kid and keeping him or her out of your hair for a few hours. If you deem the work important enough to justify paying a babysitter, you’ll find that it’s worth the extra expense.
Just Wait it Out Sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t get your toddler to go away. In cases like this, try waiting until they’re too tired to keep their eyes open any longer and put them to bed. Once they’ve turned in for the night, the real fight begins--trying to stay awake long enough to actually get work done.
Despite cash having been king for centuries, many businesses today have elected to implement cashless payment options as their customers increasingly rely on the mobile payment technologies that their personal devices allow. These businesses are the ones making the smart choice, as there are many factors that encourage the adoption of alternative payment technologies.
Nowadays, consumers have begun to expect a level of customization in all of their experiences, especially when it comes to making purchases. They now have access to technologies that allow them to pay for goods and services through alternative means, using their phones, wearables, and other devices to confirm financial transfers on the spot. It is estimated that by 2017, there will be $60 billion in mobile payment sales.
As a result, a business has the opportunity to embrace this desire for customization by offering their clients and customers options in how they settle their payments. In addition to this benefit, there are some internal perks to a reduced presence of physical cash. First and foremost, there is a great reduction in lost capital due to both theft and human error.
Additionally, the record-keeping capabilities of digital payment programs can help manage organizational accounting with options to identify discrepancies. Finally, digital payments can be made much more quickly and conveniently than traditional methods of financial transaction. This benefits both the business and its clientele.
Does your business rely more heavily on cash transactions, or have you made the switch to digital? Either way, Net It On can assist you, whether you’re ready to implement a cashless payment solution or need assistance managing the one you have currently. Call us today at (732) 360-2999 to discuss the many ways we can help.
Business owners have a lot to worry about. However, keeping workstations, server units, mobile devices, and various software solutions in good working order doesn’t have to be a concern--that is, if you outsource these responsibilities to the right IT professionals.
By outsourcing your company’s IT, these expensive and time-consuming tasks are taken off of your plate, for good. This is made possible when IT professionals utilize remote monitoring and maintenance (RMM) technology, which allows them to remote into your company’s network to perform tasks. To give you a better understanding of how outsourced IT can help your business, consider these three benefits to managed IT services.
Your Systems Will Always Be Up to Date and Secure Businesses that don’t make it a priority to routinely update their machines with the latest patches and security updates are doomed to eventually slip up by forgetting to apply important updates. Without applying updates, your systems will be vulnerable to recent, dangerous threats that previous patches don’t cover. This is why patching is so important. If you’re too lax about it, you’re putting your data in danger.
When you outsource this responsibility to a third-party provider who uses remote monitoring tools, you won’t have to worry about updating your systems any longer and your business will be more secure.
You’ll See Minimal On-Site Visits The advantage of the remote approach to monitoring and maintenance is that routine IT tasks and even troubleshooting measures can all be performed without requiring an on-site visit. In fact, break-fix IT companies won’t tell you this, but most problems with your technology can be resolved without an on-site visit. Unfortunately, break-fix companies like to charge you onsite fees, and charge by the hour, making preventative measures not their first priority. Managed service providers, however, don’t typically charge onsite fees, which creates a mentality of ensuring your network is always in tip-top condition. They want to prevent onsite visits as much as possible to keep costs down.
Of course, some problems like hardware failure still require a personal touch. However, when your network is remotely managed, the chance of hardware failure is minimized, which means fewer onsite visits are needed.
Detection of Threats and Other Problems You’re well aware of the many online threats that exist, like viruses, spyware, ransomware, etc. However, knowing is only half the battle. Do you have a security solution in place to detect and eliminate any of these threats that have breached your network? If you don't, then you can have a third-party service provider monitor your network for threats. Net It On can perform these tasks by addressing the workloads of your systems while looking for inconsistencies or security breaches in real-time.
So, who’s monitoring and maintaining your company’s IT infrastructure? If you’re tasked with overseeing it, then know that you can outsource this responsibility to Net It On today and have one less thing to worry about!
The Internet of Things is quickly becoming a major part of today’s consumer-based industry. One of the best examples of this is the use of smart car technology. A great example of this comes from a company called Zubie, which sells a handy device meant to provide car owners with tracking analytics, access to diagnostic systems, and even the capability to connect to Wi-Fi.
The device connects to a car’s diagnostic port and includes tracking information for the road taken, speed, acceleration, braking, distance traveled, fuel efficiency, and much more. Zubie uses your car’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) along with the diagnostic information and mileage to provide insight as to how your car performs. Alternatively, you can use the device to keep track of where your car is at. Just think about the reassurance you will feel when your teenager asks to borrow your car for a night out. You will be able to actually know where they both are!
It’s clear that Zubie has great value for anyone wanting to get the most out of their car, but how can your business take advantage of it? To get an idea of how this, you can set up a Zubie Business account here. Submit information about your business and Zubie will take care of the rest, customizing your experience to your specific business type and size. You can even customize which notifications you get through the Zubie mobile app.
Once you’ve done this, Zubie can keep track of each individual driver’s information and deliver it to a central location for review. Additionally, Zubie creates a leaderboard to help your drivers compete and better their driving practices, record trip histories for each Zubie user, and keep specific scores of each driver on record. Furthermore, you can take a quick look at all driving activity over the past week or month, and add users and administrators as the need arises, which makes it easier to manage the vehicles used by your organization.
Regardless of how you use Zubie, it’s a great way to keep track of your vehicles and get the most out of them. How would you use Zubie to your company’s advantage? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to subscribe to our blog as we continue to highlight great technologies that will help your business.
Every consumer-grade PC comes with a basic firewall. Enterprise environments, however, require that the base infrastructure has a stronger security solution that provides greater controls, above and beyond the basic firewall. One solution that provides enhanced firewall capabilities is the Unified Threat Management system.
Since much of today’s business computing relies on access to the Internet, one of the first things an IT administrator does to protect an organization’s network, data, and infrastructure, is deploy a firewall. Every business that relies on the Internet absolutely needs a firewall, but how exactly does it protect your organization? Below is everything you need to know about a network firewall.
What a UTM Firewall Does
Intrusion Detection and Prevention A basic security feature of every firewall is its ability to monitor network traffic for malicious activity or policy violations. Once detected, the firewall can block the malicious traffic from entering the network, as well as report it to the network administrator for further analysis and action.
Anti-Malware Similarly, the threat of malware is a problem that every business needs to take seriously. With such a wide variety of malware found online, your organization will need a firewall solution that routinely updates itself with, and applies, the latest threat definitions. The firewall that is deployed with a Unified Threat Management solution completes these tasks automatically, giving your network administrators peace of mind that your company is protected from the worst of the web.
Application Awareness Application awareness monitors the resource usage and typical behaviors of your organization’s applications. After it understands these applications it’s possible to optimize caching behaviors, loadouts, and quality of service (QoS). This also red flags irregularities in application use, adding another security layer to your network.
Load Balancing Load balancing allows distribution of traffic between multiple servers to ensure that they do not get overloaded with requests. It also incorporates failovers, where if a server fails, all traffic is rerouted to the secondary server. So if your organization has two SMTP servers for email traffic and gets an unusually high amount of traffic, the load balancer can distribute it evenly between the two. In the case that one fails, all traffic is routed through the other server.
VPN A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts traffic and data to and from your network when accessing it remotely, to prevent would-be cyber criminals from intercepting and viewing it en route. Without a VPN, anything you do or send over the Internet can be plucked, reviewed and even rerouted without your knowledge. Using a VPN wraps the data in an encrypted tunnel, so if/when data is intercepted, it basically looks like senseless gibberish except to the sender and intended receiver.
ID Access Control ID access control grants access to any of your organization’s given networks simply based on the IP or MAC address of the device. This can be useful if you want to force users to use a different network for their personal devices. You can whitelist MAC addresses of devices only you approve of. Therefore, even if the user knows your WiFi password, they still would not be able to use the network unless you allow them to.
Content and Spam Filtering Content filtering and spam blocking are two crucial components for every enterprise-level security solution, and they both come included with a UTM appliance. Content filtering allows your administrators to block risky websites, as well as sites that are known to be major time-wasters, like social media and gaming sites. Spam filtering goes even further by blocking spam emails from getting through your network and hitting your inbox (one of the most common ways that malware infects a PC).
Traffic Monitoring/Prioritization One of the primary tasks of a firewall is to monitor network traffic. It can also prioritize traffic based on it’s use. For instance, if your company chooses to make VoIP traffic a priority over GoToMeeting sessions, then an excess of calls will be assigned a majority of bandwidth over anyone in a GoToMeeting. This may cause quality issues for those in GoToMeeting but with the traffic monitoring, you’ll be able to see if this is a common occurrence, and know if your Internet service is sufficient for uninhibited daily operations.
Common Problems Using A UTM Device
A False Sense of Security It's important to keep in mind that a UTM is only one piece of a comprehensive network security strategy. For example, viruses, spyware, adware, and phishing scams are examples of malicious software that can bypass this protection, especially if your users are uneducated about such threats. Therefore it’s imperative to train your employees in security best practices, otherwise they could unknowingly allow threats into your company’s network.
A Single Point of Failure When it comes to UTM appliances, another security concern that every business owner must keep in mind is that it’s risky to have your company’s entire security strategy rest upon a single firewall solution. Like with any piece of technology, a UTM comes with a chance of failure. Should this happen, you’ll need additional security measures in place.
Now that you know what a UTM firewall does, you’ll next want to equip your business with a firewall solution that’s the right fit to handle your network’s size and traffic. Finding the right firewall solution as part of your company’s IT defense plan will involve asking more questions, as well as taking an assessment of your company’s network.
As a business owner, how do you handle employee complacency? A feeling of complacency among your employees can come from many sources, including an apparent inability of advancement. People want to develop professionally, so they’ll look elsewhere if they feel like their current job doesn’t allow for growth. How can you eliminate employee turnover due to a complacent and unchallenged workforce?
At the heart of things, you need to realize that your employees are just like your customers. They want to find value in what you provide them. When we speak of value, we’re talking about ways in which your employees benefit from being in your employ; concepts like greater responsibilities, higher pay, professional certifications, and other perks. The issue with some of these benefits is that you may not know that an employee who is exceptional in one field will be just as good in another. This fear often makes employers avoid even the idea of cross-training, but this may be a good solution for both you and your workers.
What’s the Best Way to Cross-Train Your Staff? A good way to approach the relationship between employees and management is to see it as a mutually-beneficial agreement. You provide them with what they need to get the job done, and they accomplish the work. In turn, the business compensates the workers, and the customers compensate the business. This model likely won’t change much in the near future, but this lack of change might lead workers to grow bored of their current expectations. Ideally, you want to ride the momentum provided by enthusiastic employees to expand into new markets and improve operations. However, this becomes increasingly difficult if you have unmotivated employees who may feel like they’re not being challenged.
One way to offer an immediate increase in motivation is to pay your employees more. This is due to two reasons: 1) A raise can improve a worker’s financial situation, and 2) a raise makes employees feel they are valued by the organization. The problem that many employers have is that they have limited budgets, and may not be able to offer the raises. This means that employers have to get creative with how they retain employees and keep them engaged.
A reliable way to keep employees engaged is by offering them opportunities to improve themselves through new and challenging tasks. Do this by asking them to work hard on a new project or to learn a new skill. This strategy can provide promising results for organizations that want to improve employee retention.
Worker Rotation: A Solution, or a Waste of Time? When we talk about worker rotation, we mean giving your workers the opportunity to learn how to do each other’s job. The problem with this approach is that, when done incorrectly, it can be a huge waste of time. The trick is to do it carefully by asking only workers who have grown complacent in their duties to participate, as such a dramatic change could snap them out of their complacency and get them motivated again.
The clearest benefit of rotating workers is that they won’t look elsewhere for a job that’s more motivating. This completely changes their perspective and can offer great benefits, such as more people in your company having a deeper understanding of how the entire company operates. When more workers see the big picture, it can help to better resolve conflict and may even lead to changes that make for a more efficient process.
How does your business keep workers motivated? Do you have any tricks to keep your best employees engaged? Let us know in the comments.
Does your business understand the importance of having a long-term IT budget? Your organization needs to be privy to the latest technology trends, which can change drastically depending on the year’s developments. Does your budget take into account the current value (or lack thereof) of your organization’s technology assets? Do you think about where you want to be in the future? If this sounds like too much to handle, the consulting service of an IT professional will provide you with an accurate plan.
The Value Proposition If it feels like your IT budget is coming out of nowhere, you might want to rely on an IT professional to build one; in this case, it’s either your internal IT department or an external service provider. You can see the value of having your IT service provider act as a consultant, as they are oversee the functionality of your infrastructure. Your IT provider also comes with the benefit of being familiar with your internal operations and business model, so they will understand where your technology stands and the changes you need to make.
Speaking of your IT budget, do you have a plan that allows for routine IT consulting? There needs to be complete transparency between your consultants and your business’s management. Furthermore, it’s not like you have all of the time in the world to research how to best improve your IT infrastructure, so a relationship that fosters trust is, more or less, necessary for successful business ventures.
If your business doesn’t take proper precautions, you could implement new software that creates complications for your network, or you could spread your network too thin and cause downtime. Conversely, you could go without important patches or software updates and risk sensitive data, or you could go without implementing a helpful solution and lose out on the benefits it provides.
When looking for an IT consultant, you can trust, consider the following tips.
What To Do
Make clarity a priority: Don’t let your consultant assume that they understand your organization’s needs, as you could be running the risk of them assuming incorrectly. Instead, make sure that you clearly deliver exactly what your organization wants to focus on in your IT budget.
Go out of your way to find a proper fit: A good IT consultant is like finding the perfect-sized piece of clothing. You want to find one that fits your business just right, and one which can adapt to the changing needs of your organization.
Keep user error in mind: Be sure to keep in mind that not everything that goes wrong is the fault of your IT consultant. Chances are that you could be partially to blame, specifically if you’re the IT decision maker for your organization. Don’t make your consultant the scapegoat. Instead, work with them to resolve the issue.
Find a consultant with skills you don’t have: Hiring people who have skills that you don’t have is a great way to shore up any potential problems you might encounter. This helps minimize the chances that you’ll run into a situation that you won’t be equipped to handle.
What Not to Do
Consultation isn’t a fix-all solution: While consultation can help you prevent problems from happening, it’s not always going to be an immediate fix to your problems. While advice can help, the only way to keep issues from escalating into larger problems is by keeping an action plan in mind and doing what you can to stick to it.
Confuse responsibilities: It’s important that both your IT consultant and your organization’s management know which responsibilities fall to them, so be sure to discuss these before signing a contract.
Get distracted from your endgame: Your IT budget is likely to be rather complex. Therefore, be sure to create an outline of your goals and discuss it with your IT consultant. This will help you accomplish your goals in the most timely and efficient manner possible.
Are you looking for your next IT consultant? If so, give Net It On a call at (732) 360-2999. We’d be happy to discuss the ways in which your business can best take advantage of its IT budget.
Watson, IBM’s famous question-answering supercomputer, has held many jobs over the years. After dominating the competition on the quiz show Jeopardy! In 2011, Watson moved on to help companies like Macy’s and Geico answer customer questions and improve their mobile apps. More impressively, Watson has even helped doctors diagnose cancer. Now, Watson is tackling a new occupation: Tax Professional.
On February 1st, H&R Block announced that it would be partnering with Watson during this year’s tax season. Before you curse, “Skynet!” to the heavens, know that H&R Block’s 70,000 tax professionals are not being replaced; instead, they will all be working alongside Watson. In fact, all 10,000 of H&R Block’s branch offices will benefit from this technology, where a reported 11 million people file taxes.
With this new partnership, IBM will continue its strategy of marketing AI technology to corporations, while H&R Block hopes to “reinvent the retail experience for taxpayers,” as stated by Bill Cobb, a chief executive at the company. When Cobb reached out to IBM last summer to enlist Watson for help, he was told that the computer doesn’t work like magic and first needs a bit of programing to grasp the complex tax code.
Watson’s main skill is digesting and classifying vast amounts of text, using natural language processing. So while Watson is able to be fed the 74,000 page federal tax code (as well as thousands of tax-related questions accumulated over six decades of tax return data), it still needs to be taught over a period of time.
During the training period with H&R Block tax professionals, Watson was encouraged if it asked a tax filer a smart question, and was corrected when it asked an irrelevant one. Watson was trained in nearly one hundred H&R offices in January and is now available for use.
So how does this work? If you do choose to file your taxes with H&R Block, create or log into your account. Using your own monitor, you’ll be able to follow along with a tax professional and Watson. Your information, credits, and deductions will all be available for you to see. Suggestions and questions will appear on the screen as you move through the process. H&R Block wants the experience to be both engaging and interactive, and by the end of it, you might see chances of an increased refund and a reduction in tax liabilities. But keep in mind, as Cobb says, “the tax pro is only as good as the input they get from the taxpayer.”
Clearly, H&R Block was happy with Watson’s trial performance, but Cobb admits that the real test comes after tax season is over. Tax-prep companies measure success by the percentage of returning customers. Retention rates are crucial, especially given the amount of competition out there. The New York Times reports that 60 percent of the 140 million Americans who file taxes seek help from someone else. But regardless of retention rates, it does sound as if IBM and H&R Block both view this relationship as just the beginning.
Have you filed your taxes yet? If not, would you be willing to seek help from Watson? If you have filed with H&R Block and Watson already, how was it? Either way, let us know in the comments section.
If there’s one concept that every business owner needs to be intimately familiar with, it’s business continuity. Boiled down, the concept tackles the question of how your business will carry on after a disaster situation has struck. While a business continuity plan is by no means a simplistic document, there are a few key points that all businesses should focus on.
Dealing with the Emergency Of course, in order for your business to continue, you’ll need to have your employees. Therefore, when constructing a plan that will pull your business through disasters, it is best to plan for the worst possible scenarios--including a dangerous event striking the office. Having an established safety plan is crucial to maintaining a safe environment in the office.
Preparing and posting the materials and tools required by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration is a good start, but when it comes to real emergencies, the real key is practice. Set aside an afternoon to hold a company-wide meeting where safety procedures are discussed and run through by the staff as a whole, and don’t be afraid to gently quiz your staff on how they should act should a crisis erupt.
If you’ve established your business in a region prone to natural disasters, it is also advisable to set predetermined processes to enact should one of these disasters strike your place of business. Do you have an evacuation route planned, should your staff need to evacuate your premises, and most importantly, does your staff know it? While your business may run off of its data, it’s built on the backs of those you have hired--they need to be kept safe as well.
Preparing for the Worst In order to ensure you have sufficiently prepared your business for a disaster, consider what would happen if something were to wipe your physical premises off the map. Would your data be safe if a fire reduced your business and its technology to ash, or a sudden storm expanded your business’s footprint and its infrastructure by a few counties?
Data loss is no laughing matter, and there’s nothing funny about having to close up shop for good after your critical information becomes a victim of some disastrous circumstance. Therefore, your continuity plan needs to include contingencies for exactly this kind of situation, and any precautions will need to be put in place preemptively.
For instance, a key component of business continuity is ensuring that your data is protected from external threats while still remaining accessible to your business resources. Utilizing an offsite, secure backup solution is key to this point, preferably with your data being safely stored in multiple locations and accessible through a cloud service. This not only protects your data from a widespread natural disaster or other catastrophe, but also allows you to establish business operations much faster without being tethered to your place of business.
Upkeep Once you’ve considered, planned, and implemented these precautions for your business continuity, your next step is to ensure that they will work when you need them to. This means you will need to monitor and maintain your solutions to defend against potential issues. Running emergency situation drills and tests will enable you to safely determine if your preparations are adequate, or if they need a bit more work.
You will also need to keep an eye out for any improvements that develop for your solutions, or any new threats that may arise that your precautions are ineffective against. Develop a schedule to perform regular system checkups and improvements, and stick to it. It might just bring your business back from the brink of disaster.
Workplace meetings have a reputation of being a minor, yet necessary inconvenience. Although, that doesn’t mean meetings can’t be improved upon and made less annoying and more productive. With the following tips and tricks, you can approach your meetings differently and get the most out of them.
One way to make meetings more productive is by entering them with a concrete plan, instead of just winging it If you don’t know what you want to discuss, you’ll be wasting not just your own time, but the time of your employees as you sort out your thoughts. One way to help with this is to create an outline of the meeting’s agenda. This can be as simple as a bulleted list and it helps when everybody attending the meeting has a copy (even a digital copy via email would work).
When preparing the meeting agenda, it’s good to objectively look it over and ask yourself if the topics at hand are even worth meeting about. One of the worst ways that meetings kill productivity is when meetings only take place for the sake of meetings (“but this is what we do every Monday!”). Therefore, having an agenda beforehand provides ample opportunity to evaluate the meeting’s purpose so you can cancel if need be and save your organization a ton of time. For example, one question you can ask yourself is, “Would the point of the meeting be achieved if I instead emailed the agenda to everyone?”
Additional questions to consider when creating your agenda are:
What purpose does your meeting have?
What is the end goal?
Are you meeting to establish an initiative’s timeframe?
Are you resolving an issue?
Are you brainstorming your next project?
At the very least, going through these questions will add clarity as to what exactly the meeting is about.
Once you’ve assembled everybody around the table, you’re next going to want to establish meeting protocols in order to minimize distractions and keep everyone on task. Here are some suggestions:
Discourage the use of mobile devices at meetings (unless they’re needed).
Try having people stand instead of sitting. Standing is healthier and it will make people antsy enough that they’ll think twice about wasting time with ridiculous questions and comments.
Make use of visual aids, like presentation software.
Finally, your skills and strategy as a presenter can make a world of difference in terms of the efficiency of your meetings. When leading a meeting, try enhancing your presentation in these ways:
Use humor sparingly--in such a way that it engages the audience without distracting them.
Be concise and try not to ramble on.
Avoid filler words like “um,” “uh,” and “well.”
Convey authority by being decisive.
Just be yourself!
Time permitting, one way you can finetune your presentation is by practicing it ahead of time, perhaps by recording it or by going over it with a trusted friend or colleague.
If you apply these tips and practices to your next meeting, you should start to see major improvements with how it’s run. Who knows, it may even make meetings (dare we say it) enjoyable.