Big IT to small biz: Listen up, little dudes!

Large corporations have a lot to teach small businesses -- like these six lessons (some painfully learned) from the big boys on the tech block

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Obviously, a small business can't always afford a dedicated IT manager, so it's fair to ask when the ROI on hiring one makes sense. "I'd say the break-even point is in the $30 [million] to $50 million revenue range," says Baschab. "Good IT governance can save 20% of expenditures. So if you do the math, once you get to that point, you've saved enough to pay for your IT manager. That's when IT governance will start to pay for itself."

Take care of the basics

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Part of knowing how to allocate your IT budget is understanding what has to work. "Apply Maslow's hierarchy of needs to IT," says Baschab. "The lowest level of the pyramid, the physiological needs like food and water -- that's your operations and infrastructure. It only applies to a few areas -- backup, security, disaster recovery, reliability of Internet connection and e-mail -- but they're the ones that'll kill you if they fail."

Some of these needs are like the heat in your house: They operate in the background and you don't notice them until they fail. Others are like electricity: You use them every day, and they have to work when you call on them. Baschab points out that your needs as a small company aren't going to be different in terms of sophistication as those of a big one, just different in scale.

"Your firewall needs to be just as secure as the one at a Fortune 100 company," he says. "They may have hundreds of network devices, and maybe you only have two or three, but you must be just as buttoned up as they are."

As further examples of areas in which even a small business has to meet the same standards as a large corporation, Karcher cites security and privacy. Corporations may have more to lose from security breakdowns, but small businesses also have to understand the laws that are in place and the risks that may arise from honest mistakes.

This is particularly true for companies doing business internationally. "There are many different security requirements to navigate in other countries," Karcher says, "and many new privacy regulations to comply with globally."

Always on

Then there are the public aspects of IT, which have to work like the telephone, says Hoover -- that is to say, users expect them to be there every single time, just as every time they pick up a telephone they get a dial tone. This is the expectation your staff has for e-mail, printers, fax machines, instant messaging, teleconferencing, backup and recovery and so on.

Large corporations give high priority to ensuring that the IT components that keep the business running smoothly are as reliable as possible, and so should you. That means redundant Internet connectivity and backup plans for e-mail going down, for example.

Beyond that, make sure you know what is core to your business -- what only you can fully understand and manage, advises Hoover. Own these IT assets and manage them from inside your IT organization. For example, a marketing communications firm would want to own the IT equipment and software that are used to create designs for advertising or marketing for their clients, but they may decide to outsource the billing system used to send invoices to their clients. Creating design is a core competency, but when it comes to creating invoices, someone else can likely do it better.

And also know what you don't have to take care of yourself. Help desk services, monitoring server uptime, disaster recovery, some application support and maintenance -- all of these may be candidates for outsourcing to a provider that has already developed efficient operating models.

"It's like plumbing," Karcher explains. "You don't have an in-house plumber; you get one when you need one."

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