Rethinking IT Management For Small Business

Why the traditional approach to technology staffing does not work

Most small business owners are frustrated with the time and capital demands of their technology investment. Technology is expensive, ever changing and the contribution to the bottom line is not always apparent. Attempts to be deliberate with technology architecture decisions leads to more questions;

  • How can every printer vendor promise to save me more money than the other ones?
  • Can I get all of the collaborative email features I want without having to hire a full-time email administrator?
  • Why is the right CRM so hard to find?
  • Are we really protected from viruses and spam? How many programs do I really need to buy to be ‘protected’?
  • Does our website REALLY help us get more customers?
  • Which hand-held should we standardize on? Blackberry? Which service? AT&T? Verizon? Is there really a difference?
  • Are we really getting the best deal on our technology lines? How do I compare DSL? T1′s? PRI’s?
  • What do we really need??

These questions leave most small business owners with the conviction that their IT investment is not optimized but they need help to get through all the data and conflicting opinions. There just isn’t time to do the research to properly understand the value of the various technologies. The logical progression is to hire an administrator to manage the technology investment. This works for a while but ultimately this leads to an uneasy truce with the IT solution, the systems do ‘enough’ of what is needed and is supported by staff with a tolerable mix of technical skill, sufferable personalities and some understanding of what the business really needs. Small business managers accept an infrastructure that is adequate because there isn’t time to delve into IT personally and the administrators are not able to able to actualize tangible business advantage with the current technology.

The cause? Small Business Information Technology departments attract technicians. People that make excellent support personnel and administrators. What is missing is the strategic thinker. Someone with an understanding of the technical tools AND both the financial and operational background to establish a comprehensive plan for the business that is financially justifiable, technically efficient and business appropriate to grow and evolve with the company.

This understanding highlights the need to hire technical personnel with more experience and deeper knowledge in business administration. Being a technician isn’t enough, the candidate must be aware of the needs of the specific business, the marketplace, competitors, industry trends and be able to evaluate the total cost of ownership of potential solutions and weigh that cost against the value of devoting the resources to sales, R&D or marketing. Unfortunately, hiring a full-time CIO with this breadth of experience and understanding of the business needs quickly becomes cost prohibitive for most small businesses.

The strategic decisions are critical to get right but the business cannot justify a full-time CIO. The high-end, strategic task of keeping a small business on-track with the IT portfolio may not be a full time job and the right candidate is costly to retain. Still, the in-house administrators, devoted to operational support, do not have the right perspective to actualize the mission of the business. To address this limitation, there is a growing trend in Small Businesses to consider part-time CIO programs. Part-time CIO programs allow companies access to seasoned, senior IT management for the amount of time appropriate for their business needs. Similar to retaining an attorney, this model allows small business to retain low-cost, in-house technicians to support operations while leveraging the depth of experience and knowledge of an experienced executive to establish the architecture standards, develop staff and ensure the alignment of solutions to the corporate strategy.

Part-time CIO programs can be as little as 30% of the cost of retaining a full-time executive without the additional employment package overhead inherent with full time executives. A part-time CIO contributes immediate value to the organization allowing the small business owner to focus on their business with the piece of mind that a highly-trained, experienced professional is addressing the back-end needs to keep the business on track.