Your office is full of 386's and 486's running DOS 3.1 applications. WordPerfect 5.2 was a great word processing application in its day, but you are tired of your client's complaints about not being able to read your deliverables. Boot-up takes more time than your first morning cup of coffee. You know you are overdue to replace your old unsupportable systems.
Many larger companies replace their hardware systems on a regular cycle usually every two or three years and their software platforms are in sync with vendor releases. They might not have the latest technology unless their business warrants it but they do tend to remain reasonably current. Just because you do not have the deep pockets of a large company does not mean that you cannot also benefit from paying attention to your information technology (IT) infrastructure.
So, what is the next step? You have talked to some vendors, but they are just confusing you with the many available options. Is the recommended replacement solution common best practice, or "bleeding edge" technology? How can you insure that you are making the best IT decision for your business? This month we will discuss the IT lifecycle and the tradeoffs of implementing emerging rather than established technology solutions for a small business.
Business and the Technology Lifecycle
The concept of a technology lifecycle is simple plan your IT systems replacements instead of waiting until they are obsolete or unrepairable. As a busy and cash-strapped small business owner, this idea might not appear intuitively obvious. You want to squeeze the most value possible from your expensive IT investments. However, as many have painfully learned, just because the system is still functional and paid for, does not mean that it is a productive option for your company.
How do you determine what needs replacement and what will remain viable for another year? I recommend that you create what I call an IT roadmap. Think of the roadmap as a "state of the company" document for the business IT resources. It does not need to be anything elaborate a list posted on a whiteboard might be sufficient.
The most important criterion of an IT roadmap is that it stays focused on delivering systems and services in line with company business objectives. Upgrading the company file and print server just because the latest hardware is available is not reason enough. But upgrading because the existing system is unsupportable or no longer adequate for the company needs are valid and justifiable business reasons. By knowing what you will be upgrading and when you will be upgrading help you budget accordingly. If you are having cash flow problems, you can even tie an upgrade into a specific project or client.
Does this technology have the potential to improve your bottom line in a reasonable amount of time? Wireless networking is an example of a recent technological innovation that can quickly pay for itself as long as you accept the security risks involved.
Some other new technologies like Web portals and radio frequency identification (RFID) are both highly complex and require major changes to your business model. Unless a major customer is requiring it or your industry is embracing the technology, the tradeoffs of an expensive and difficult deployment cycle might well make it unattractive until it is proven in the marketplace.
Your business is investigating a new technology that has the potential to enhance your company's competitive advantage, but you are understandably nervous about the possible risks. Implementing untried technology within your company takes a large dose of common sense and a solid understanding of the business problems that you are attempting to solve. Before you consider such a project, first you need to take the time to stay abreast of the current emerging trends by reading trade journals and emerging technology columns such as this one.
The next step is to understand both your business and industry needs and how emerging technologies can be tools to achieve your goals. Is your industry and business culture supportive of adapting emerging technology? If you're in a very conservative industry, construction for example, it would be more advantageous to deploy only mature, proven technologies. On the other hand, if you operate an e-business you need to rapidly implement new technology just to stay competitive.
Here is a checklist of things to consider when reviewing emerging technology solutions for your business:
- Do you have a significant business problem that new technology has the potential to solve?
- Does you company and industry culture support the use of emerging technology?
- Do you have a clear and full understanding of how the emerging technology will work in your company?
- Do you have the staff resources to plan and implement the project?
- Do you have access to the training and skills required or can you obtain them easily?
- What is your tolerance for failure and rapid change?
If you answer "yes" to most of these questions, then you probably should be on the lookout for promising technologies that can give your company a competitive edge. If not, maybe you should stick with the mature and proven technologies that fit better your business model.
Once you have taken the steps to plan an orderly upgrade of your IT resources, you are in a better position to avoid the curveballs of obsolete equipment breaking at inopportune times or incompatible software damaging your customer relations. You will also be better able to judge whether you are ready for emerging technology or would be happier waiting for the inevitable marketplace shake out.
Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies. She has been in the trenches supporting company IT infrastructure for over 20 years in a number of different fields including architecture, construction, engineering, software, telecommunications, and research. She is currently consulting, teaching college IT courses, and writing a book about IT for the small enterprise.
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