You're a small business and you have the budget to prove it. The problem is, you need to expand your IT. Without such an expansion, you can't grow. How do you get around the budget-lock? You get creative. That's one of the beauties of technology: It's there for you to use and to use in a way that benefits you. Of course, nearly every piece of technology has its recommended usages — but that doesn't mean you can't bend the rules a bit or just add some new policies to help your business IT grow.
I've come up with 10 creative ways you can expand your company's IT without having to blow your budget wide open. Some of these ideas can be implemented with little to no effort, whereas some will require some serious change. Either way, the end result is the same.
1: Open source
This should be a no-brainer. Your IT budget is limited and you need more of just about everything. Though open source can't easily help you with hardware, it can do wonders for you on the software side of things. Those older machines? Slap a lightweight Linux distribution on them. The newer machines? Opt for LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office. There are so many ways in which open source can help you — even beyond the desktop. Install Linux on a desktop machine or even put it to work as an in-house server you can use in a multitude of ways.
One of the best-kept (non) secrets of midsize to large businesses is that they manage their workflow with the help of CRM (customer relationship management), CMS (content management system), and HRM (human resource management) tools. Part of that "secret" is that there are plenty of cost-effective solutions that can meet (and exceed) those needs. Try the likes of Orange HRM, Drupal, and openCRX. Each of these tools offers tremendous power, at zero software cost, that can enable your company to expand in ways you probably never thought possible. And you don't always have to use the tools exactly as outlined. For example, the Drupal CMS platform is (with the help of plugins) an outstanding tool for creating a powerful company Web site.
3: Crowd-source development
One of the nice things about open source is that it's possible to get people involved in your project. This, of course, isn't limited to open source - but it's a great place to start. If you have a specific need for a project, or if you have a feature you'd like to get rolled into a currently existing project, reach out! I have done this on a number of occasions — contacted developers and asked for a feature to be added. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. You can always host your project on Google Code, which offers free hosting for collaborative, open source projects. Other services, such as the ZohoMarketplace, allow you to post your requirements, to which developers will submit to develop your app.
BYOD is not new, nor is it all that creative. But for many smaller companies, it can be a real boon for getting technology in the hands of employees. This is especially true when you'd like to have the power and flexibility of tablets and other mobile devices. This doesn't mean you simply tell your employees, "If you want to use a computer, bring your own!" Instead, you let them know it's okay for them to bring their own devices to add a level of familiarity to their everyday usage. You will want to make sure that all devices brought in meet certain criteria (e.g., all Windows-based devices must have antivirus and anti-malware).
5: Google Apps or Zoho for business productivity
Google Apps is quickly becoming a standard by which businesses measure cloud-based software, but Zoho offers a host of software and services that can do wonders to expand your business. Zoho offers tools like invoicing, email/social marketing campaigns, CRM, bug tracking, reports, recruiting, and finances.
6: Cloud-source backups
Maybe you won't be backing up a server's worth of data, but you can use the likes of Dropbox, SpiderOak, and UbuntuOne to sync your data to multiple computers. It's not a be-all, end-all backup solution (I would add some form of local back as well). But if disaster strikes, you can at least rest assured that certain folders and files can be retrieved easily. You can even get away with the free version of these tools. Although you are limited to 2 to 5 GB of data per service, you can get creative by installing multiple cloud-based tools and have them each sync different folders.
This is a rather touchy subject, but for some companies, bringing in undergraduate interns can help on a number of levels. First, you're bringing in new ideas. These students are typically just about to come out of their CIS or Comp Sci programs and need the internship hours. This means you get fresh minds, with fresh ideas, at a pittance. This isn't taking advantage of a system, because both sides have a need. Just make sure you don't work your interns too much or ask more from them than originally agreed upon.
8: Social networking
Social networking can play a huge role in expanding your IT. If you remove the "social" aspect of social networking, you're left with "networking." Being able to network means you have a large resource for help and information. If you're stuck with a problem, get on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter and try to get help. I realize that anyone in the IT industry knows that the classroom and Google are your best friends — but honestly, sometimes connecting with others is better than scouring Google or the Microsoft Knowledge Base.
9: Resisting lock-in
Don't fall for lock-in. Microsoft and other big companies are going to do everything they can to lock you into their products. The problem is, once you're locked in, it's a costly endeavor to get unlocked. Instead of falling for the typical tactics of the big software companies, understand that the world of computing has become very homogeneous. This is especially true as everything migrates to Web-based and cloud-based platforms. At some point in the near future, the operating system is going to be an afterthought. Keep this in mind as you begin purchasing new hardware and software. Avoid lock-in, and expansion will be much easier.
"Expand by remaining agile" might sound like a buzz-filled catch phrase. But when you give it some thought, one of the most remarkable characteristics of small businesses is that their size lends them an agility that big business doesn't have. By remaining small, you remain agile. And if you apply this to your IT, you will continue to operate that way. So in the end, thinking small can really be thinking big.
- IT Innovation for Small Businesses (ZDNet special report page)
- Executive's guide to IT innovation in small businesses (free ebook)
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.