Big companies almost always have IT departments that help them select technology, install, integrate and maintain it, train employees, provide desktop support and fix systems that break.
If you're a small business owner, you probably don't have an IT department. So how do you manage the technology in your company? In too many cases, the answer is: not well, or by the seat of our pants. But there small businesses can adopt more effective approaches to IT management, and there are very compelling reasons why they should.
Hiring a full-time dedicated IT staff is one solution, and it may be a more reasonable and affordable strategy than many small business owners think. But there are other solutions as well, including using managed service providers (MSPs) that deliver some or all services remotely, helping to reduce IT management costs.
The Financial Risk of Poor IT Management
Maintenance and support of essential systems is just one part of IT management, but it's where the impact of poor performance is easiest to see.
"When a server or network goes down, and it's not if, it's when, you'll be losing time and money and productivity," said analyst and consultant Laurie McCabe, a partner with the SMB Group. "People can't do their jobs; they can't enter or take orders, for example. The cost of not performing well in this area is going to show up on the bottom line."
For some businesses, such as small law firms where attorneys charge high hourly rates, costs can mount quickly if employees are unable to access information or systems they need to do their jobs. But it's not just loss of access. Neglecting software patches or anti-virus updates -- important parts of system maintenance -- can result in costly malware infections. If you lose private customer data to hackers, for example, you'll likely lose customers.
"These kinds of situations can be absolutely catastrophic for a small business," said Darin Stahl, a research lead at analyst firm Info-Tech Research Group Inc.
Strategic IT Management
While the bare essentials of keeping computer systems healthy and humming are most crucial for small businesses, it's not the whole picture. Who decides which technology you use? The second biggest concern around IT expressed by small business owners in a survey conducted by McCabe's firm was that they might miss new solutions that could help their business.
Ensuring you're using the latest and best technology you can afford requires knowledge, expertise and a commitment of time and resources. Who decides when you should upgrade essential infrastructure such as network equipment, servers and PCs?
Hanging on to old computers may seem like a good cost-containment measure, and an easy way to avoid the issue, but if you hang on too long, Stahl pointed out, old gear can cost you more in lost productivity and increased IT management than you would pay for new.
Small businesses need someone to analyze these issues and make recommendations or decisions.
IT Implementation and Integration
When you do upgrade infrastructure, who oversees the installation, and how is it done?
Most small businesses buy PCs in ones and twos when they absolutely must or when there's a good deal at the local big box store. They end up with a mish-mash of makes, operating systems and application software versions.
Larger companies, Stahl said, acquire new PCs on planned cycles, and when they install them, use a standardized 'image' with all the operating system settings and application software needed for each employee. This approach speeds installation and integration, reduces IT management costs and helps ensure solid security. There is no reason small businesses couldn't do the same.
When you acquire new software systems, who ensures that they're working as intended? The third biggest IT concern in the SMB Group survey is implementing new solutions, McCabe said.
It goes beyond simply implementing, she added. "How do I integrate those new systems with what I already have? How do I make sure everything works well together? How do I configure and customize it for my business?"
Getting the most out of the technology they've already invested in is the number one concern expressed in the survey by SMB Group, McCabe said.
Bridging the IT Knowledge Gap
There is often a "knowledge gap" in small businesses about such issues and their importance, said Stahl. Many think they know their business and the technology they need, and that it's a simple question of acquiring and installing it.
"They're being sold this notion that all you've got to do is buy this server from Dell or HP, put it in, hook it on your network and press this button -- and everything happens," Stahl said. "And yeah, sometimes it is that easy to replicate your data, but is it secure, is it encrypted?"
What are the options for improving IT management in your company?