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Posts from June, 2017


Amazon Alexa in the Workplace: What Could You Do With a Virtual Assistant?

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

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Amazon Alexa, the voice-based intelligent personal assistant you may have seen an early adopter friend use at home, has surprising potential to increase productivity in the workplace. Like Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana, Alexa is able to perform tasks for the user via voice commands. However, Alexa’s decentralized nature makes the system well-adapted for shared use in the workplace.

The virtual assistant is especially helpful at keeping employees focused on their primary tasks by simplifying interruptions—from adjusting a meeting time to looking up an address—into a simple voice request. In short, Alexa is a powerful tool for automating and streamlining common work procedures.

Enter Echo

Amazon Echo is a hands-free, smart speaker that serves as a gateway interface to the Alexa Voice Service. Echo is the most practical way to use the assistant, featuring a different style of interactivity compared with similar services (which are primarily run on phones and tablets). For those who prefer a device-based option, Alexa also runs on Amazon Fire tablets.

As of January 2017, Amazon has sold over eight million Echo units.

Out of the Box

Alexa is very good at automating and simplifying mundane, simple tasks in the workplace. While the real power lies in programming Alexa to perform unique tasks, the assistant is already powerful out of the box. For example, businesses can put an Echo at the conference table during meetings and ask it questions that come up instead of opening a phone or computer and performing a Google search. Alexa is also helpful for tasks like announcing the weather forecast, adjusting background music, and controlling smart lights—all through voice commands.

For more advanced users, Alexa is compatible with Microsoft’s Office365 and can be put to work on tasks like calendar collaboration. Requesting a day off or adjusting meeting times is as simple as asking Alexa. Some businesses may find the assistant helpful for streamlining office supply orders; Alexa allows employees to add items to a shopping wish list. (Gone are the days of endless email chains and formal paper requests.) If someone discovers that paper towels are running out in the break room, or the stock closet is low on staples, they can say “Alexa, add X to my shopping wish list.”

Custom Programming

Good ideas don’t always come at the right time. Imagine one of your staff members thinks up a great idea for an upcoming project while they are working on a more urgent one. Writing down or recording those ideas while trying to stay focused on the task at hand can be difficult and disruptive. With custom programming, that employee could tell Alexa to attach a note to the upcoming project and then get back to work. Alexa’s custom-programmed “skills” can work as standalone features or be integrated with existing applications and services to serve your business’s unique needs.

Back in the conference room, Alexa could be used on the fly to gather custom analytics like “what was our total profit last week” or “how many products did we ship in February and March” for fast responses. Programming is pretty straightforward, but the downside is that Alexa needs to recognize a range of specific phrases to work correctly.

If your company is looking into new ways to increase productivity with new technology, the IT consulting experts at MPA Networks are ready to help. Contact us today.

Intranets and Small-To-Medium Business Productivity

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

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Many small-to-medium businesses (SMBs) have taken to hosting their own intranet to increase productivity in the workplace. For those unfamiliar with the term, “intranet” is not a typo, but rather an internal network that behaves like a private Internet. At their core, intranets help businesses improve communication, boost collaboration, and organize important information in an secure, easy-to-access location.

Intranets are considered an inexpensive solution for providing streamlined access to information and services.

Ways to Use an Intranet

A versatile tool with no specific use, an intranet can be adapted to the jobs it needs to perform. Think of it less like a 10mm socket wrench, and more like a Swiss Army Knife.

An intranet often serves as a hub where businesses can: 

More advanced intranets can host complex applications like ticketing systems, customer relationship management systems, payroll management, time clock services, and benefits enrollment.

Designing Your Intranet

According to the Worcester Business Journal, businesses should determine who will be using the intranet, what purposes the intranet will serve, and what the security needs of the system are at the beginning of the design process. From there, your business should look at all necessary applications and hardware for the platform.

Security needs can vary greatly between intranet implementations: An outward-facing intranet that holds confidential information and can be accessed online will need a login system, data encryption, and user privilege controls. On the other hand, an intranet that is used exclusively for internal reference, and is only accessible in the office, won’t require much protection beyond a Wi-Fi password.

The Internal Website Use Case

Your business may not want to start big with an intranet and all its accoutrements. In this case, it’s possible to test drive the concept at low cost by building an internal reference website accessible only from your in-building network. Your business can repurpose a recently replaced or unused desktop computer to act as a makeshift server for the site.

Install the free web server software Apache on the computer, and host a website. Your company can start with hosting basic HTML pages that have links to all the important documents, policies, and contacts employees need to access, and then move on to a more robust content management system like CMS Made Simple or WordPress. Employees can access the internal site through the web browser of any computer connected to the office network.

The experts at MPA Networks can help your business maintain and secure your intranet and network via our IT managed services. As your intranet grows, so may your server management needs. Contact us today to learn how MPA Networks can help your business increase productivity and improve IT security.

The Cost of Memory: Trends to Impact Your Upgrade Cycle

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

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Computer memory market trends could play a role in your business’s decision on when to upgrade or replace employee computers. According to PC World, the technology research experts at Gartner predict that prices for both RAM and Solid State Drives (SSDs) will start to decline in 2018—and then crash in 2019.

Unlike the typical technology price trends that drop as devices age, memory components have more volatile prices that rise and fall for the same productsIT consulting services can help your business take advantage of trends to replace or upgrade devices when the market bottoms out.

What Memory Means for Productivity

Computer RAM and storage devices like SSDs increase productivity by making computers complete tasks in as little time as possible. Having more of either than the user actually needs won’t make them more productive, but having too little can dramatically slow the work process.

  1. RAM: The computer’s main memory determines how many active applications the device can run simultaneously. When there’s enough memory, the user can quickly switch between programs with minimal load time. If the computer is low on memory, it will have to use the Hard Disk Drive (HDD) or SSD to augment the main memory, which limits the number of active applications and increases the time it takes to switch between them.
  2. SSD: SSDs offer significantly faster performance than HDDs. A computer running an SSD will boot faster and load programs much more quickly than one with an HDD. The major barrier of entry for SSDs to replace HDDs is the cost-per-gigabyte of storage, with SSDs of similar capacity costing up to four times as much.

Taking Advantage of Memory Pricing: Upgrading Old and Buying New

There are two main ways your business can take advantage of the forecasted memory price drops:

  1. Plan your upgrade cycle to coincide with the 2019 price drops.
  2. Plan to upgrade existing system RAM and SSD storage in 2019 to extend device lifespan.

Hypothetically speaking, if a small business has 12 computers coming in to an upgrade cycle in 2018 that are still performing adequately, it is probably worth waiting to see how memory prices fluctuate in 2019. If the SSD and RAM prices drop as expected, your business will get much better devices at the same price point.

Alternatively, your business can take advantage of the lower price points by upgrading in-use devices in 2019. Switching to an SSD and upgrading the RAM are two of the most cost-effective ways to breathe new life into an aging system. Well-timed upgrades can extend a computer’s viable lifespan and push back the upgrade cycle by a year or more.

Other Devices and Price Points

While dropping memory costs mean less expensive computers and cheaper upgrades, other device classes used in business probably won’t see a drop. The tablet and smartphone markets cater to specific price points, as opposed to offering the same devices at decreasing prices. If those devices are going to receive a boost, it’s going to come in the form of more storage at the same cost. However, the industry is showing signs of lowering price points, with the new iPad listed at $329 instead of $500.

If your business is looking to upgrade its computers at ideal intervals to balance productivity and cost, MPA Networks’ desktop management services can help. Contact us today to find out more.