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IT Management 101 for Small Business - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell
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IT Management Solutions

Some IT management strategies that small businesses turn to may not be ideal. One is to assign an untrained tech-enthusiast employee to look after IT on a part-time basis -- the "shadow IT department," as Stahl called it.

It can be successful, he said. But it may not be the best use of that employee's time. And because the person is untrained and working part-time, he may overlook crucial tasks -- resulting in compromised security or system instability.

The other most common strategy is to hire a small local value added reseller (VAR) or computer service person, sometimes on retainer, to come on site to handle routine maintenance and respond to trouble calls.

Stahl puts the cost for the lowest level of service providers at $25 to $30 per device per month for handling routine tasks and responding to trouble calls. Unscheduled "moves, adds and changes" are charged on a time-and-materials basis.

There are a few problems with this approach. The least expensive providers may not be "fully professional," Stahl said. Their knowledge is limited so they don't recognize or know how to solve all problems. "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," he said.

The other problem is that most are small operators themselves and may not be able to respond quickly. Problem reports can pile up for a week or more until the person comes in to deal with them. "That breeds a lot of frustration," Stahl said.

Retaining bigger, more professional service providers with better capability to deliver timely onsite service can cost from $35 to $50 for desktop computers per month and as much as $70 for servers.

Managed Service Providers

Many essential IT management tasks can be performed remotely, over the Internet. Managed service providers (MSPs) offer various outsourced IT services, including routine maintenance and help desks.

With remote service packages, costs drop to more like $19 to $22 per desktop per month, Stahl said. McCabe said it can range anywhere from "a few dollars" to $30 to $40 per device, depending on services delivered.

Stahl and McCabe are both enthusiastic about MSPs as a solution for small business. "More and more small businesses are thinking of going to managed services for remotely managing things like software patches and backups -- all the basic care-and-feeding stuff," McCabe said. "I think it's a really good option."

Small businesses can use the Managed Service Showplace, a vendor-neutral online database of MSPs, to find a service provider, she said. Many are local or regional in focus. Intel also has an MSP locater at its small business website.

"I think it's a real win for small businesses," Stahl said. "It lowers the cost structure. It means they've got a more consistent level of service and the mean time to repair is shorter so people are back earning revenue faster. It's a big win."

MSPs may not be ideal, though, for small businesses with a "reactive" management style that values quick onsite response, he noted. MSPs can dispatch onsite technicians, but it's not their forte, and it typically costs extra.

A Nerd of Your Own

Once small businesses hit a certain size -- Stahl suggested 75, McCabe said 50 -- it becomes, as McCabe put it, "very hard to not have at least one IT person on staff."

The point at which it makes sense to hire dedicated IT staff may come sooner or later, though, depending on the complexity of your technology and other factors. Small businesses should analyze their costs for outsourced IT management and then calculate whether hiring in-house expertise would cost more or less.

Stahl estimates the "fully loaded" cost -- salary and benefits -- of an entry-level IT professional at about $55,000. Finding the right person may be difficult, he warned.

You also need to decide at a strategic level what you're hiring the person do. One possibility is hiring someone to do routine maintenance, trouble response and repairs. But that still leaves the other crucial IT management functions such as acquisition, implementation, integration and customization.

McCabe recommends that small businesses with 50 employees and up consider using an MSP for routine "care and feeding" of technology and hire a more senior staff IT person to manage the MSP and all the other IT management tasks.

Where's the pay-off in that?

"When a company can think more strategically about IT -- figuring out how IT can really help your business as opposed to just figuring out how to keep systems up and running -- those are the companies that usually get an edge in the market," McCabe said.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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This article was originally published on August 25, 2010
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