General office productivity tools are those technology tools that are common in any knowledgeable worker environment today. This category can further be divided into hardware and software tools. Let’s start with hardware.
Every financial planning firm needs computers, but choosing the right mix for your practice can be more complicated than you think; and poor decisions here can become costly over time. We’ll start the discussion off with computers because that is the first piece of equipment that most people ask about when building a new practice or upgrading an existing one, but in fact, readers would be better served if they evaluated computer purchases in the context of their software, workflows and networking needs.
For example, if your office has only a few people, but you each need access to files on one or more of your colleague’s computers, the traditional approach has been to network those computers; commonly with one or more servers acting as a central data repository. This allows the computers and server(s) to “talk” to each other. For a very small group that only requires limited access to each other’s files, a peer to peer network, the most basic type of network, has been the traditional configuration. In this scenario, all the computers are connected to each other, either directly, or more commonly through a router. Since each computer is likely supplying its own storage in this scenario, such computers might require larger hard drives, as well as redundant hard drives to guard against drive failures.
Once you get beyond a few employees, a server/client network is best. In this hub and spoke scenario, one or more servers stores the data, and it then serves the data up on request to the individual client PCs. In a server/client environment, the server does some of the processing, so workers that are performing basic tasks like word processing might find a less powerful PC more adequate than they would if they were working without a server.
The good news with regard to small business servers is that they are more powerful and more affordable than ever. A practice of up to ten can purchase a file sharing, print sharing and email server for under $2,000. The bad news is that maintaining servers and a computer network is more complex than maintaining one or more individual PC’s. Small firms cannot afford a full time IT staff, and finding talented, affordable third parties to service your equipment can be a huge challenge.
Rather than deal with the challenges of maintaining a computer network, many smaller firms are now choosing to outsource their hardware and software maintenance to one or more application service providers. By relying on application service providers (ASPs), a firm can get by with just PCs. Others are retaining servers, but they are having them hosted and maintained offsite. With either ASPs or hosted servers, employees access applications and files through an Internet connection. In the case of an ASP, usually only a web browser is required. In the case of hosted servers, software requirements can vary depending on the configuration desired (more on this later).
Before we move on to the next topic, a word about Apple computers. Until recently, it was virtually impossible to run a financial planning practice with anything other than a Microsoft Windows based system. That’s because all financial planning applications were Windows based. That is no longer strictly the case. Since many developers now offer web based software that requires nothing more than a web-browser, it should, in theory, be possible to run all web based applications on a Mac. Unfortunately, not all web applications are Mac compatible, and those that are do not support all web browsers, so you might have to access some sites using Firefox, for example and others using Safari or Chrome. In spite of these limitations, web applications are supporting a wider variety of web browsers and operating systems. This trend should continue as a small but growing segment of the advisor population adopts Apple products into their practices.
In addition, Apple moved to Intel processors a few years back, making it possible for Mac owners to run Windows applications on a Mac. One way to do this is to use Boot Camp, Apple’s free program that allows a Mac to be booted as a Windows PC. An increasingly popular option however is virtualization. This allows a user to run one or more Windows programs in their own “virtual spaces” right within the Mac operating system, so that you can run Windows and Mac programs side by side. The two leading virtualization programs for Mac are Parallels (http://www.parallels.com/
) and VMware Fusion (http://www.vmware.com/products/fusion/
). Oracle’s VirtualBox for Mac OS X is a free, open source virtualization application. It is not quite as highly evolved as the other Parallels and Fusion, but it may be sufficient for occasional or recreational use.
Although Microsoft has long offered Microsoft Office for Macs, moving Word and Excel documents back and forth between operating systems was far from seamless. Over the last years, however, cross platform compatibility has improved. Finally, even if you intend to stick primarily with Windows, you might want to consider adding a Mac to perform specific tasks. For example, if you do any in house graphics, client brochures, newsletters, etc., purchasing a Mac to perform those tasks will pay for itself in short order.