This is the first installment of our new series, Demystifying IT for the SMB. Over the course of this series we’ll share some of the key factors we see as central to IT success in the small-medium business world. We’ll give insights from our real-world experiences with companies who are doing it well — to the benefit of their day-to-day operations, and their bottom line.
Part 1: IT Maturity
How does my business measure up in IT world? Small, medium, or large business – what am I?
Technologically, the lines between big businesses and small ones have blurred somewhat in recent years. While many technologies used to be so expensive that they were only feasible for enterprise-level organizations, now cloud-based services like Office 365 have made the benefits of Exchange Online, Teams, and SharePoint affordable and accessible to much smaller companies.
The rapid increase in small business IT offerings in the past few years is enough to make your head spin. It can be time-consuming for small business owners to navigate the maze of new technologies and implementing these new tools can be intimidating. Healthy businesses come in all shapes and sizes, and business technology solutions are as diverse as businesses themselves.
Some businesses have to be early adopters of technology because their customers are online, and the cutting-edge matters to their product or their brand identity. Others work more in the face-to-face world, and so long as there’s an internet connection with functioning email and a corporate website, that’s enough for them. With that diversity in mind, business IT systems need to be designed and managed within the context of what is important to your business.
Small businesses are often defined by numbers—how many employees or servers you have. But in our work with businesses of all shapes and sizes, we’ve seen that the biggest difference between large businesses and small ones comes down to the company’s attitude toward IT. That’s where IT Maturity comes in.
IT Maturity Applies Big-Business Strategies to Small-Business IT Environments
By necessity, large businesses have to take a more strategic, intentional approach to their IT decisions than small businesses do, because their organizations are more complex. So big businesses typically have IT Directors guiding their technology budgets, projects, and policies within in the context of the organization’s objectives and priorities.
Small businesses usually lack someone experienced in that IT Director role, so they often end up making it up as they go – using technologies that might not really be aligned with what they want to achieve. Sometimes there are systemic issues with the way a small business runs their IT simply because they lack the resources available to larger organizations. Small businesses face the same issues over and over again as a result of these misalignments, regardless of their industry.
The good news is that smaller businesses can learn the strategic and organizational IT management lessons from the big business world, and apply them to the SMB IT environment. Before deciding on any specific technology solution, it helps to take a holistic view of the company’s business drivers and approach toward technology in general. Regardless of the size of your business, the first step to IT maturity is to look at the major factors that impact your business IT priorities, size, and scale.
Two companies that have the same exact employee and server count numbers may have a very different IT experience in their day-to-day workings of the company. So rather than focusing on the not-always-helpful metrics of “size,” we prefer to focus on IT maturity and what that looks like across businesses of ALL shapes and sizes.
Key Questions for Developing Your IT Maturity
Over the years, we’ve worked with a wide range of clients across many industries, and have come up with a few key questions that help determine where a company currently lives on the IT Maturity spectrum:
- How dependent is your business on technology in its day-to-day operations? Or, if you’re starting a new business, how integral do you want technology to be in your business operations and processes? Understand how and why IT is important to the different functions of your business.
- How prepared are you (financially and organizationally) to take care of your IT assets over the course of their usable life? When you make your IT purchase decisions, do you budget for their maintenance? Make sure to account for the cost of ownership and maintenance for the life of the equipment. As time passes, make a plan for replacement and upgrades so you don’t get caught off guard when those assets reach the end of their usable life.
- Who is (or will be) responsible for maintaining your IT systems and supporting your staff? Make sure you have plans in place to perform essential maintenance along the way. Know who owns the management of your equipment, and who will perform support and maintenance tasks.
- How do you deal with organizational change, and the implications on your IT environment? Do you plan to grow, add or change locations, hire staff, or change the primary focus of your business? Understand how those plans will impact your IT decisions.
- How resilient could your company be in the face of a major technological crisis? Do you have data backups, a breach response plan, and resources who can help you get back up running? It’s not a matter of *if* your business will face such a crisis, but when. You can’t control when such things will happen. But planning for the worst ahead of time can bring the outcome back under your control.
The answers to these questions help to understand the scope of your organization’s IT needs. But more than that, these questions help give us a good initial handle on your organization’s IT maturity. This holds true across all industry verticals, and all phases of an organization’s life.
What does IT Maturity look like?
Let’s compare and contrast two hypothetical competing companies, the same size in the same industry in the same geographical area, to see what this looks like in practice. Bob’s Widgets has taken an immature approach to IT, while Debbie’s Gizmos has put in the work to mature the company’s IT approach.
Bob’s Widgets has been growing, and they have a network that has grown with them organically over time, made up of whatever equipment could be found on sale, set up by a tech-savvy family member or volunteer that was able to lend their skills for a while. Documentation is sparse or missing altogether. Bob relies on one person who is familiar with this environment and holds the keys to the IT kingdom.
These are the hallmarks of a small business that is on the low on the “IT maturity” spectrum. Now let’s contrast that with a competing SMB that has taken care to plan its network around the priorities of the business.
Debbie’s Gizmos has also been growing, but had the foresight to think ahead about how the business planned to grow, and implemented a well-laid out infrastructure that would allow for future expansion. They keep good records of documentation so that their outsourced IT team can react efficiently and effectively to problems. They have built a budget for IT maintenance and upgrades into their long-term plans, so that they aren’t caught off guard by crashes caused by extending systems long past their usable life.
Debbie’s company ranks higher on the IT maturity spectrum. Though these two businesses may be similar on paper – with similar employee counts, revenues, numbers of servers, etc… their corporate culture, efficiency, and the daily work environment for their employees is like night and day.
As a result of this difference, Debbie is better positioned for growth relative to her competitor, Bob, better able to recover from a technology crisis, and is likely better able to retain good employees too.
That’s what IT maturity looks like. And that makes all the difference.
Stay tuned for part two, where we’ll share three different SMB IT management models, how they typically measure up on the IT Maturity scale, and how to tell which one will best help you to succeed.