IT has made major shifts in the past five years, the most interesting of which has been a shift from a focus on the enterprise as the primary source of technical innovation to a consumer focus that's brought low-cost, well-designed, and highly functional technology to the masses. This shift presents a great opportunity for smaller businesses that have traditionally been left in a difficult situation with enterprise IT tools out of budgetary reach and consumer tools not quite workplace-ready. Here are some of the trends and technologies that will have a major impact on SMB IT in the next five to seven years.
Lights out IT
Large companies once had an immeasurable advantage over the small in terms of sheer IT resources. A smaller company would have a handful of IT staff if it were lucky and, in many cases, anyone from the president to a summer intern would handle IT tasks as needed, while a local outsourcing provider would do the heavy lifting. With the recent advent of cloud-based services, an internal or external IT department starts looking anachronistic. Now a credit card and a day's work can provision everything from corporate-grade email to CRM and customer service applications.
While the cloud is often overhyped, its impact on smaller companies is that it reduces the technical disparity between large and small organizations and, in many cases, actually works in favor of smaller organizations. A 100-person company can abandon an internally hosted application with relative ease, while a large organization with decades of custom code faces a far more difficult choice.
As IT applications and services continue to migrate to the cloud, an SMB can "rent" best of breed applications without any IT infrastructure or staff beyond end-user devices and an appropriate network. Even the latter need not be required in organizations with a remote workforce.
Social media and Big Data are growing increasingly commonplace, and larger companies are now creating formal teams and departments to manage social media accounts. While smaller companies can't compete on this scale, they can adapt to changing trends in social media and also interact more directly with customers. Many large organizations sanitize their social media postings and customer relations through layers of marketing, legal, and compliance, presenting a banal face to the customer that's not much better than the pre-recorded messages and menu trees that respond to phone calls.
As social media become the primary method of customer interaction, smaller businesses can react nimbly to changing customer tastes and respond in a personal manner to customer inquiries. Just as smaller companies distinguished themselves by having a real human answer the phone rather than a robotic recording, so too can these companies distinguish themselves by personalized interactions over social media. Leaders at smaller companies can strike a contrarian tone that garners customer interest in a sea of sameness. Combine this with a lights-out IT operation that can rapidly purchase cloud-based analytical tools, and smaller companies can develop deeply personal relationships with customers while larger competitors are busy having legal perform a lengthy approval process on every communication.
While technical virtualization, the abstraction of computer servers from their underlying hardware, is nothing particularly new, a combination of technologies and new services has made this possible on a corporate scale. Just as IT applications have increasingly become commoditized through the cloud, so too have entire business functions. Large companies have outsourced everything from product design and manufacturing to HR for years, and these functions are now within the reach of even the smallest companies. Organizations of one or two individuals can now acquire world-class IT, manufacturing, and marketing at commodity prices and, in many cases, have access to the same companies and facilities as the world's largest companies.
One can see this in action today by looking at some of the recent successes on Kickstarter, where one-person companies with an idea and a working prototype were able to acquire funding and ramp up to mass-scale manufacturing in a few months, all with very limited hiring. Just as many emerging technologies give the smallest players access to enterprise-grade technology, these same tools are allowing large service providers to profitably serve smaller organizations.
As this becomes increasingly common, smaller companies can combine a closer relationship with customers, "lights out" IT operations, and access to world class service providers to enter new markets, create and ship new products, and transform into entirely new organizations in a matter of days. Combine these capabilities with smaller organizations' ability to rapidly recognize and react to change, and you have a winning combination that will revolutionize the way smaller companies compete in the marketplace.
SMBs can now be leading-edge IT innovators, as our latest Special Feature from ZDNet and TechRepublic explains.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.