Leadership

Finding time to understand new technologies

IT managers weigh in on what they see as the issues that currently need attention in small and mid-size businesses. They reinforce the assumption that IT leaders need to make time to focus on the bigger picture.

IT managers weigh in on what they see as the issues that currently need attention in small and mid-size businesses. They reinforce the assumption that IT leaders need to make time to focus on the bigger picture.

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About a week ago I leveraged the Question/Answer features on LinkedIn and asked "What are some of the biggest technology issues facing mid-size and small companies today?" I wanted to get some other opinions on what are some major concerns focused specifically on smaller companies.

One major theme developed and a couple of minor ones, but it all comes down to the obvious, having the time and the resources to do it right.

A poster from the UK said, "Data leakage and securing end points. Normally down to not having any or developed computer/data usage policies in place. Another is not having mature and tested Business Continuity or Disaster Recover(y) solutions. If issues happen, there are no fall back solutions and business stops until things are resolved. Not that these are unique issues but SMEs don't always have the resources to invest."

Josh Chernin, a general manager at Web Industries replied, "I agree with (name withheld) on security, especially data security as opposed to viruses, etc.

"Another big challenge for us is that despite some pretty good backbone systems, people still find odd workarounds and develop private sub-systems. It's not entirely bad, because it reflects people wanting to do a good job, but it plays havoc with standardization. We try to design our systems to be very responsive to requests for new options, reports, etc., to minimize this.

"Finally, perhaps the biggest challenge is simply keeping up with all the new tools, systems, options--just learning about what's available, so we can choose intelligently. We use outsiders judiciously for this when we feel we need to."

Mark Fletcher, a director with Axciom Consulting in Australia writes, "We are continually conducting market research on Small & Medium Enterprizes (SMEs) and the biggest issue is their lack of time and resources to adequately investigate and take advantage of new technology. SMEs typically spend their time focused on day-to-day activities and 'getting the next sale'; not on researching IT alternatives and best suppliers. They know that they cannot afford (financially or businesswise) to make a wrong IT decision, but they feel trapped by their situation - which leads many of them to make no decision and continue to utilize old technologies.

"The key is to find a trusted IT advisor who actually understands the needs and limitations of small businesses. For most SMEs, the ideal IT solutions are appropriately scaled, do not require large amounts of capital, and require minimal training and management - added functionality is often the least most important criteria!"

Dan Riley, a technologist from the Midwest writes, "The biggest challenge to small to medium-sized businesses is the convergence of technologies and the corresponding inability of SMB technology managers to keep up. Many SMB managers are network administrators or another type of specialist. Good convergence integration with lines of business will require a big picture attitude that most technology specialists don't develop. The need to integrate voice, e-mail, data, and paper into a quickly accessible portal is upon us. The businesses that fail to adapt will simply fail. The second challenge is not restrict(ed) to SMB. It is the lack of a service ethic among employees and vendors. People have forgotten to work for their employers and customers as they would want someone to work for them. The third challenge is the dependency of SMB business on other businesses for support and service. An SMB can't have a telephone specialist, a computer network specialist, a marketing specialist or a full time regulatory manager. They require other businesses and we are at their mercy for accuracy. The web will help provide access but not help judge accuracy."

The major theme is not being able to stay on top of technology trends or getting the deep understanding of the technologies that are available to companies today. When I was with one of my first start-ups, an ecommerce company in Waltham, MA, the number of vendors with new products to sell to us numbered in the thousands. I sat through probably over 100 sales calls in less than a year. It became pretty clear that the focus was on the sale and not on what the company needed. The sales guys would try to fit their product into what they thought we needed.

Years later with larger companies, I still have that same experience, with just a few exceptions. Josh Chernin's comments about getting outside help when needed is good advice. That is what a technology partner does for you.  Finding one is a challenge, but it first starts with possessing the discipline to poke your head up out of the weeds. There are always things that need to be done yesterday in SMEs, but you will never be able to add value to your company until you can take the time to look for new alternatives.

Security was another theme evident in the responses. Critical data walking out the door on burned CDs, laptops, Blackberrys and USB drives is so difficult to control without resources. Larger companies handle this with policies and procedures that provide employees guidelines on proper use of company data. Usually, if something bad happens because of a violation of these policies, the employee is disciplined somehow by HR. I personally do not agree with this approach. Sure the poor guy at the Veterans Administration that lost his laptop with millions of former military member social security numbers was disciplined by HR, but the damage was already done.  At the same time, getting management of SMEs to focus on something that might happen instead of things that are happening now is a herculean effort.

As an IT leader in an SME, take control of the situation. No one else is going to stand up and make decisions about data issues. Any personally identifiable data is locked down. Exceptions are signed off on by the CEO because judging risk is his job. You're not passing the buck here. You're playing the role of customer data custodian and implied or not, that is your job.

What are some of the challenges you see that are specific issues surrounding SMEs?

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