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Monika Ambrozowicz for Forest Admin

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What are internal tools? The ultimate guide to admin panels, database GUIs, CMSes, and internal tool templates

Internal tools are where businesses run their operations. I know - it sounds very broad but that’s because each organization’s needs can be very different, and internal tools are widely used to perform various actions such as keeping track of the inventory, processing customer claims, confirming bookings and refunds, collaborating internally, performing KYC processes, managing fleets, exporting data, visualizing dashboards… this could be a never-ending list.

Some of these operations are common, and solutions like CRMs, ticketing software, or popular Business Intelligence (BI) tools fit their needs. Others are so specific to one organization that ready-to-use solutions are not a good fit for them, and such organizations are more likely to build internal tools in-house. In the past, it used to be the case of 99% of them but third-party internal tool solutions like Forest Admin have changed the game.

What are internal tools?

Internal tools are often called back-office tools because, in contrast to the front-office, they are never visible to customers. Does it make them less important? Let’s stop here for a moment. Obviously, the customer-facing app is king, as apps and services are designed to address the customers’ problems. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that customers are not impacted by the quality or the lack of internal tools. Without customer support tools, customers wouldn’t get their issues solved. Without KYC systems, financial services businesses wouldn’t be able to operate. Without analytical tools, product performance, retention, or growth wouldn’t be monitored.

As a customer, every time you easily get quick, precise solutions from a friendly staff, you can bet this staff is equipped with top-of-the-class internal tools. As a business, investing in efficient internal tools is one of the most effective ways to increase customer satisfaction and employee retention.

Internal Tool vs. Admin Panel

The terms internal tool and admin panel are frequently considered as synonyms and used interchangeably. However, it’s important to know that internal tools have a broader meaning — every admin panel is an internal tool but not every internal tool is an admin panel. The main difference is that admin panels are built on top of the application’s database whilst internal tools can be built on top of any type of data source, like a SaaS provider such a Stripe, Intercom, or Salesforce. Internal tools built on top of such data sources allow for enriching the data that typically isn’t stored in the app’s database: payment details, marketing campaigns, customer support conversations, and similar. Thanks to that, business team members can handle complex workflows without worrying about where the data is located.

Internal tools also often refer to small tools tackling specific use cases that fit the needs of one small team or even one person. The admin panel is used by the whole company to collaborate on shared data from multiple sources across all teams and operations from customer support to warehouse management and financial controller.

Internal Tool vs. CMS

CMS stands for Content Management System, and it is widely used to create, publish, organize, moderate, and delete a website’s content. WordPress, Webflow, and Ghost are among the most popular CMSes, and they all work in a way that users add or edit their content using an HTML editor, and the content is saved with the back-end in the database. Then, WordPress or another CMS shows the content based on the previously constructed front-end. They are monolithic in the sense they have all the functionalities included.

An interesting type of s CMS is a headless CMS, also called an API-first CMS. Such a system also gives the non-technical content editors the interface for managing content, but developers are free to choose their front-end technologies. Contentful, Sanity, ButterCMS, Content Stack, dotCMS, and Kontent by Kentico are popular content platforms and headless CMS solutions.

Similarily to an admin panel, every CMS is an internal tool but not every internal tool is a CMS. As its name states it, a Content Management System can only manage content, which makes it the perfect solution to manage a blog or another website that is rich in content. Its advanced text editor widgets, video-embedding, visual builders, and category management features will make it the easiest tool to write beautiful articles, create static pages or organize the content of a product catalog. However, they don’t have many useful functionalities of the all-in-one internal tools, and they can’t serve as a data centralization system. A CMS will not be of any help to organize the shipping, reimburse clients, visualize sales KPIs, moderate user-created content etc. Companies often use both a CMS and an admin panel to get the best of each tool.

Internal Tools vs. database GUI clients

Database Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) clients are simple interfaces built on top of the database that allow for performing CRUD operations. They’re far from being fully-functional internal tools but they allow to access the database and give full control over the data.

The biggest disadvantage of database GUI clients is that they can only be used by team members with technical expertise — we bet you wouldn’t like to give raw SQL access to your database to everyone in the organization. Another downside of database GUIs is that they don’t provide any dashboards to monitor growth and other metrics. However, if the need is to access data and to perform basic operations on it, and the lack of technical expertise is not an issue, database GUI clients, such as Postico, Sequel Pro for SQL, or Robo 3T and Studio 3T for MondoGB, can be a good choice.

Internal tools: Build vs. Buy

The big question everyone has to answer before making a decision in favor of any kind of an internal tool is whether to buy a ready-to-use solution or build it from scratch. In the past, almost every internal tool has been developed in-house, as other ways of having internal tools were simply not available.

At Forest Admin, we decided to do our own research and we surveyed early-stage companies in the fintech industry. Choosing fintechs was not a random decision — companies operating in this industry have to comply with strict regulations regarding data protection and preventing money laundering and fraud. It means such companies have to have internal tools ready from the first day of the launch and it is absolutely crucial for them to have all the data under control — the question is how they prefer to get it done.

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Read the entire report: The state of admin panels in early-stage Fintech companies

Our survey showed an almost 50/50 split in answering the build vs. buy question.

What makes users choose the off-the-shelf solution then? First of all, building and maintaining internal tools takes on average up to 30% of development time. As development resources virtually always are the bottleneck of any tech company in 2021 (seriously, who has too many developers and not enough projects to develop ?), it is strategic to allocate these resources to building unique differenciating features on customer facing apps, not coding from scratch an authentication, CRUD, roles and permissions, and charts for internal needs. On top of that, internal tool developers and designers are difficult to hire - professionals involved in product management, design, and development in most cases prefer to work on customer-facing apps.

Respondents who were in favor of building internal tools in-house wanted to make sure the application is secure. However, this concern can be addressed by choosing the tool that was created with all of those in mind. For example, Forest Admin has a hybrid architecture thanks to which user data only transits through an admin backend hosted on the client's server, and its layout editor and smart features give a lot of flexibility for the internal tool to fit every specific needs of every business, as developers can introduce custom coded logic and views.

Off-the-shelf solutions like Forest Admin also tackle issues that most business owners are concerned about such as:

  • Data security. User data goes through the admin API hosted on your servers, right into your end-user browser interface. It remains completely invisible to Forest Admin servers.
  • Scalability. Forest Admin is built to scale with your application - it will handle the company’s growth from a few to thousands of employees.
  • User Experience. The UI of Forest Admin is aesthetic and intuitive. Not only your dev team but also product and design teams can focus on the customer-facing app knowing a third-party internal tool is user-friendly and professionally looking.

Where to find internal tools

Let’s say you’re now convinced to use third-party solutions instead of building your internal tool in-house, from scratch. How to choose the best one, then?

As I’ve already mentioned, there are different types of internal tools: from database GUIs and simple admin panel templates to all-in-one data centralization systems used by hundreds and even thousands of users from different teams. Finding the perfect solution depends largely on the size of the company, its business logic, and the needs of team members they are going to work with it. Here are a few options:

  • Admin panel templates — pre-built packages that allow for a quick start as they provide a ready-to-go admin panel in literally a few clicks. However, their simplicity is a double-edged sword as they don’t allow enough flexibility for projects that are even slightly more specific and complex. We have covered this topic already in the article that explains why you most likely need more than admin panel templates.

  • Open source internal tool solutions. Some web development technologies have internal tool solutions available out-of-the-box. For example, React has React Admin, Django - Django Admin, Ruby in Rails - Active Admin, Laravel has Laravel Nova, just to name a few most popular. They are ready to use, which is a significant advantage, just like the fact they’re well-integrated with their frameworks. However, they’re also limited in terms of functionalities and can’t be used for big projects with complex business logic. They also require coding skills to make even the smallest edits, which is not the case with third-party solutions with a WYSIWYG editor.

  • Off-the-shelf solutions like Forest Admin. I believe they give users the best of both worlds. For example, Forest Admin has plenty of out-of-the-box functionalities that don’t require any coding but it also gives developers a lot of independence and flexibility in building custom-made smart features that can fit even very specific business logic.

A screenshot from Forest Admin

How to share internal tools with external partners

Although internal tools are meant to be used, well, internally, there are cases where they become even more powerful when at least some of their subsets are shared with external partners: suppliers, resellers, franchisees, even some clients. This allows them, for example, to get access to real-time data about stock levels, sales dashboards, some user data. At the same time, there are parts of the internal tool that should be restricted, so that external partners don’t have access to all the company data. Forest Admin is the only internal tool solution that offers it natively: our roles and permissions system has been designed to share subsets of an internal tool hassle-free.

Read more about Forest Admin for Partners

Internal Tools: Summary

Although internal tools usually don’t get as much attention as the customer-facing apps, the consequences of neglecting them, like lower employee productivity and satisfaction, slower handling of customer tickets, or scaling difficulties are severe, and sooner or later, they will have a negative impact on the entire business. The good news, now there are more ways of getting custom-made and user-friendly internal tools without building and maintaining them in-house: from open-source templates to fully-functional third-party solutions.

If you’d like to give Forest Admin a try, sign up for free.

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