What's different is how these packages describe your business data, called "metadata," which is then related back to the functions that keep your business in business: For example, email can be linked to accounting; invoices to payroll; calendars to planning; travel requests to budgeting and on and on. Everything your small business does can be essentially connected, automated and monitored in real time. Herein lies the problem -- and the opportunity. Yes, the process of automating the relationship between, say, a phone call and an invoice is powerful stuff. In my business I compete very effectively with much larger media companies using tools like free collaborative software from Google ( GOOG), called
Google Apps , to build a Web-based spreadsheet that tracks and logs the electronics I test. It's actually more efficient than the zillion-dollar tracking software I used when I worked at the Walt Disney Company ( DIS) a decade ago. However, the way I connect my email archives to this spreadsheet is not necessarily the way productivity software producers -- like 37signals, which has a very nice Web-based business-automation tool called Basecamp , (starts free, $149 for unlimited projects and other features), or Rave , which sells by-seat icon-based sales support tools -- believes I should. So I must build my own bridge from Google Apps to Basecamp. And that either means I eat time and expense of importing the data by hand or have a custom application built, with all the attendant issues of cost and debugging.