Information Technology has never been more affordable. Small businesses can now take advantage of technology that will help them level the playing field and compete with larger companies, even on a global scale. Yet, the costs for small businesses that compete with you have come down too. How do you use IT to gain a competitive advantage?
Business leads – IT follows
1. Use IT to provide value to your customers
If IT does not add value for your customers, what's the point? Technology should allow you to either, lower costs, provide better customer service, or develop new products and services your customers need. If deploying new technology does not do one of these, do not bother.
2. Do not buy more complexity than you need.
Efficiency is found in simplicity – fewer moving parts. Do not buy feature laden software if simple software gets the job done. However, you should take care to analyze and anticipate your needs so you do not under buy. A good tactic is to plan for a progress of features or capabilities that match your expected growth. Choose software that is easily upgraded and allows you to use your existing data with new versions or modules.
3. Apply technology only if it improves a process
A manual process is often the most efficient. Do not spend 200 man hours implementing a technology that will save you 8 man hours a month. Any technology should also add customer value over and above the manual process.
4. Monitor capacity, performance and health
Do not just set it and forget it. There are too many inexpensive management tools that will allow you to monitor your systems and alert you in time to avert a disruption of service. Something as simple as running out of disk space can cause a service outage that takes days to recover from.
5. Be proactive instead of reactive
Monitoring your systems also allows you to collect data that can be used for trend analysis. For example: By knowing the rate of increase in your disk space usage you can predict when you will need to add capacity and plan accordingly.
Replace your equipment before it wears out or becomes unreliable. Practice "life cycle management." Budget for computer replacement every 3 to 5 years. For example: if you have 40 computers, consider budgeting to replace 10 of them each year.
6. Plan for contingency
Hardware fails. Users screw up. Viruses are always a threat. It's prudent and cost effective to use redundant disk technology on your server, but you do not have to go crazy trying to build fault tolerance into all your systems. If you have 20 computers, having a spare ready to go only costs you an additional 5%. That's a very cost effective way to increase availability. I've worked with large companies that will spend days trying to source parts and repair a computer while the user can not work.
7. Provide operational structure
Define the processes you will use to manage your information technology just as you would any other business process. Use a disciplined approach to performing the tasks needed to complete the processes. For example: backing up your data requires a number of specific steps. Write them down, perform them at the same time every day, and train more than one person to do them. Plan how you will update software and apply patches. Create processes, document them and develop a routine.
8. Train users
Your users do not need to know how to use every little bell and whistle. If they help them do their job faster, they'll learn them. Train them how to use their hardware and software to complete the business processes that they are responsible for first. Teach them about Internet safety and help them organize their files and data.
9. Hire professionals to do the technical stuff
Find competent and reliable professionals to help you plan and maintain your systems. A good professional will want to understand your business, your customers, and your plans for the future. Once you have a good technology partner, you can focus on your business and customers.
Information technology supports your efforts best when it is reliable, predictable and efficient. The best way to improve all three is to simplify.