Managing technology in a small business

Businesses with 2 to 100 computers are taking unnecessary risks if they treat technology as an afterthought.  Think carefully about the software running on those systems and how important it may be to your operations.

Your operation processes are critical parts of your business. Processes are designed to be repeatable in order to make people more efficient. They can be used by an intelligent but less knowledgeable employee to solve problems for your customers that the owner or a higher priced employee might otherwise have to do and that frees the more experienced people in your business to work on other issues that require their expertise.

If you are acquiring a business that you already know well and are simply integrating the business value into an existing business, the process changes don’t necessarily happen overnight. I have spent years analyzing and understanding business processes in companies and one thing I learned early on is that existing processes can unnecessarily be complex, convoluted, obtuse, and hard to understand. By simplifying processes more people can easily use them.

Look for experienced technical help in the form an experienced consultant who can catch you before you fall. If you have a solid business plan then you already have an idea about your operational needs and you should look for help before making large purchases.  An experienced advisor can recommend technology vendors, services and products for your needs.  Getting the  right vendors and partners can make your road a lot less bumpy for your business. For example, if you want a wireless network instead of wired network, discuss the pros and cons of those two options.  Should you buy Windows XP or Windows Vista. How about Apple Mac OSX or Linux? Does your business have unique requirements?  Which marketing software will suit your particular business the most?  I’ve seen several instances where a company chooses a piece of software because of neat features they don’t really need and ends up with software that doesn’t do a good job covering the processes they need the most.  complex, convoluted, obtuse, and hard to understand, but if they are simplified more people can easily use them.

When you acquire a business it is possible to build into the transaction a lot of value if you can get proper documentation and even training on the existing processes. Even if your intention is to change those processes – refine them, improve them or even completely replace them – you may not be able to do that day one, especially if you are inheriting existing employees in the purchase of the business.

You will need to carefully and thoughtfully evaluate your existing staff. Make sure that if you want to keep those people in your company that you make them feel comfortable with the new ownership and make them feel appreciated. I’ve seen both sides of this – companies running roughshod over existing employees and in the process losing the talented people they should have kept, ending up with the weak employees driving those important processes to the detriment of your bottom line. I’ve also seen it done right where changes are done to processes very carefully and with a lot of input from the most knowledgeable people.

In one instance, I helped a larger company integrate a new business of 15 employees, but the new business had better processes. Over about a year those new processes were carefully integrated into the existing larger business with significant value added to the bottom line.

Create a plan and a budget going forward for at least the first year. Make sure the systems you will be using to support your critical operations processes are adequate for the task and that you know who to call when something fails.  You don’t want to be figuring those details out at the moment you have a critical problem.  There are a lot of available options so do some research before spending and don’t sign long term contracts, especially in areas like telephone services where the price 3 years from now will likely be less than it is today.  If you are buying an existing business make sure that you have carefully reviewed any existing contracts and that you carefully record the date the contract expires as well as whether or not the contract automatically renews.  Gather the right information now and you can save yourself a lot of money and grief later.

You may want to consider outsourcing some of your IT services. Do you want to keep your IT expenses as low as possible so that you can focus on the core business? There are ways to keep your IT staff at a minimum or even zero while minimizing your monthly costs. You can hire someone for 45-70k to look after your computers, but I can guarantee that a year from now a risk assessment will identify a lot of problems, especially if you have servers in order to run your software. An experienced IT person can smoothly move your IT infrastructure into a hosted environment and cut your spending by 25% or more.

Stewart Francis, the founder of IT Roadmaps Inc, has helped owner-managed companies understand the value of technology processes and provides IT Management experience to small and medium sized businesses.  He can be contacted at 416-574-9675.

Copyright 2008 IT Roadmaps, Inc.