Three models of SMB IT Management – Creating Your IT Team

In our previous installment of this blog series Demystifying IT for the SMB, we learned about IT Maturity, a mindset that applies big-business strategy to the SMB’s smaller IT environment. Today we dig into three common ways that SMB’s manage their IT, and how they rate on the IT maturity spectrum.

Part 2: IT Management

There are three primary areas of any business IT organization: people, process, and technology. A mature IT organization has thought out all three of these areas.

Many SMBs jump straight into their technology questions without really examining the other parts of the equation. So today we’ll dive into the people question first, looking at three common models of SMB IT management.

We’ve provided IT support to organizations of all shapes and sizes for over three decades. During that time, we’ve seen three major approaches that businesses take toward the human aspects of IT management – that is, the people who are responsible for the IT systems. We’ll review each of these IT management models, how well they *usually* rate on the IT Maturity spectrum, and recommend some steps for maturing each of these approaches.

Model 1: The One-Man Shop

Maturity rating: Low

This approach is common when a young corporation needs some help setting up their IT environment quickly or inexpensively. In this scenario, someone in the owner’s circle has some IT experience and general tech-savviness, and this relative or friend-of-a-friend is tapped to set up the business’ new key systems. This often includes workstations and laptops, perhaps a server, basic internet access and maybe even a firewall.

Once the systems are built, ongoing support requires this person to be available for troubleshooting and routine maintenance. When there’s a pre-existing relationship, sometimes that can make for decent support availability in the event that something goes wrong since you know where to find them.

On the flip side, in the event that this person goes missing or moves on to other things, you may be up the creek without a paddle. Our experience shows that this happens far more often than people expect it will. This can be especially problematic if your IT person designed your systems with technologies that they personally know well, but that aren’t really common systems that meet industry IT standards. You may have a person who knows your Linux server inside and out, but if that person disappears, you’ll likely have a tougher time finding someone else who can support your systems than if you had a Microsoft-based environment.

Pro: The company is able to get systems built for a relatively small up-front investment by someone they know.

Con: With a lone IT resource, you have only one person’s knowledge to turn to for guidance and may find yourself between a rock and hard place in the event of a technology crisis.

Ways to improve your IT Maturity with this model:

  • Don’t cut corners with your IT platforms… a technology that’s cheaper up front may cost a lot more to own in the long run. This holds true regardless of whether you’re investing in physical assets like server hardware or committing to cloud hosted services. In either case, use industry standard, supportable products. Niche items won’t do you any good if the one person who understands your systems goes dark.
  • Documentation, documentation, documentation. If you’re operating in the blind, you don’t know what you don’t know. Make sure that you know exactly what systems you have, and how they are configured to support your critical business processes . Keep tabs on these assets as they age so that you can make plans for their replacement. Ballpark 3 years for workstations, 5 years for servers.
  • Have a backup plan for systems and personnel. Don’t get caught in the trap of depending on a single person to run or monitor your backups. In the event that something goes wrong, these backups are key to restoring your systems in a timely manner. Know where your backups live and verify that they’re being performed successfully, on schedule. Know who else you can call in an emergency in the event that your IT person is unavailable.
  • Use a password portal so that one person doesn’t have all the keys to the kingdom. This ensures that you are able to access your systems and are able to provide logins to other support resources who may need access.

Model 2: The Multitasker

Maturity Level: Low to Medium

In this model, an employee in your SMB has a non-IT primary role, but IT also falls under their area of responsibility. This may be a tech-savvy manager, office administrator or even owner. In our multi-tasking world, it’s a reasonable expectation that someone in one of these roles has some IT capabilities. The official job titles vary widely by industry, but the nut of this model is that you have one person who has to wear a lot of different hats in the course of a day.

A lot of smaller SMB’s hire for certain positions with this idea in mind… for example, specifically looking for an office manager with IT skills during the hiring process. Day-to-day it may work well depending on how realistically the company developed its job description and the expectation of how many hours would be spent on IT versus their primary job tasks. But when a challenge arises, it can drive your multitasker to their wits end.

There are two major challenges that can drive your multi-tasking manager to the breaking point:

  1. A technology crisis unfolds that is outside of the employee’s skillset to resolve or repair. They may be able to do day-to-day troubleshooting or end-user support, but lack the training or experience to repair deeper, systemic problems. Just as in Model 1 above, this leaves you without any backup resources available to help out during a crisis.
  2. Support request volume gets too high for the employee to keep up. Employees get grumpy, things start getting missed, and the work environment gets really stressful. In this scenario, the manager employee suffers burnout and you may lose them to a less stressful job elsewhere.

This model can work, but it does require extra effort on the company’s part to ensure that technologies, processes and resources are in place to mitigate the worst of these challenges.

Pro: IT support is readily available in-house when needed.

Con: High risk of employee burnout, and insufficient time and knowledge in the event of a crisis.

Ways to improve your IT Maturity with this model:

  • All of the suggestions from Model 1 above, plus…
  • Build in redundancies in your personnel. Cross-train staff, or partner with an outsourcing company who can take on the proactive maintenance tasks that your staff never seems to have time for and be a backstop for support in case of an IT emergency.
  • Include IT training in the staff development plan. When you work in an IT environment day-to-day but it’s not your primary focus, you can develop tunnel-vision as you only know what you see regularly. Keeping the primary IT resource’s skill set up to date on product updates helps them understand important changes that may be coming down the pipe.
  • Proactivity is key to maintaining security, reliability, and performance. Ensure that your company is using well-designed, repeatable processes for updating systems and planning for system upgrades. Plus, if an upgrade is coming down the pipe, start reaching out to potential vendors sooner than you think you need to.

Model 3: Outsource IT responsibilities to a professional IT Services firm

Maturity level: Medium to High

In this model, the company outsources IT to a fully-capable team with diverse experience and skill sets.  With an IT Services firm (like ours) which has a full range of IT expertise at tiered billing rates, you have all the resources available for everything from day-to-day helpdesk troubleshooting to IT migration planning to proactive scheduled onsite maintenance. You don’t spend any more than you have to for the task at hand, and always have someone you can call if a ticket needs to be escalated. Plus, any IT Support vendor worth their salt will have defined processes for managing your IT systems.

IT Service Providers use two common pricing structures. With an hourly rate structure you only pay for what you use, but costs can vary from month to month. With a fixed-fee model, you get the predictability of a regular fixed fee, but many vendors lack transparency in how much you’re getting for your money.  Most IT providers will take one approach or the other.

We like to think we offer the best of both worlds because we have fixed-fee packages for proactive support services, but hourly rates for everything else. That way you have a predictable baseline budget, but also can get some good estimates for how much additional funding you’ll need to allocate for projects and incident support.

Pro: Robust personnel capabilities, industry-standard technology knowledge, defined processes.

Con: More expensive than the one-man-shop or the many-hats approaches.

Ways to improve your IT Maturity with this model:

  • Choose a vendor who assigns a primary engineer to your account, who interacts with your systems and your team on a regular basis. They come to know your environment very well, understanding what’s important to your business, and your company culture. This relationship is key to a long-term IT partnership.
  • Don’t get locked into a vendor that uses proprietary products that other vendors would not be able to support. You’ll have to migrate away from these systems should you ever want to part ways, which costs time and money that you might not have… especially if the previous vendor leaves you hanging in a crisis.
  • Know how your IT vendor makes their money. Do they resell hardware and software, or do they purely provide services? A lot of IT vendors receive referral fees from their partnerships with manufacturers… which can lead to bias when recommending technology solutions to their clients. Does the IT vendor have a vested interest in recommending certain products over others? Make sure you’re really getting the technologies that are right for your business.
  • Make sure the IT service provider keeps passwords and documentation secure but doesn’t restrict your access. If anything goes wrong with the relationship, and you need to hand over the keys to a new vendor, you will be able to provide this critical information so they don’t have to go in blind (which again takes time and money that you might not have).

Up until now, we’ve been talking here specifically about management models for SMBs that aren’t big enough to warrant (or fund) a full internal IT department. Businesses grow, and businesses change, so while one of the above small business models might be working well now, as you grow and progress on the IT Maturity spectrum you might find yourself ready for a new approach.

Bonus Model: The Hybrid Solution (Best for those who want internal IT staff AND outside resources)

Maturity level: High

While many SMBs stay with outsourced IT until they’re quite large, bringing IT in-house is a common “growing up” step as SMBs develop bigger needs that require bigger systems and a bigger IT budget. 

For those SMBs who have matured enough to need an internal IT department of at least one person, one of our most successful models is the hybrid approach that carves off certain responsibilities to an outsourced IT provider. Under this model, the internal team maintains control over what matters most to them to perform directly, while they have flexibility to offload certain tasks to the IT partner.

An outsourced IT provider can come alongside to help you fill the knowledge gaps of your team, manage ticket overflow during busy seasons, or help with implementing new technologies that your internal IT staff hasn’t set up before. But for this partnership to ensure, strong IT management processes must be in place. Remember, the more intentionally you address the people, process, and technology questions, the better position you’ll be in for long-term IT health… and ultimately business growth.

Stay tuned for part 3, where we’ll discuss the processes that you need to have in place to create a seamless collaboration between your in-house team and your outsourced IT provider.

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