If you are searching for simpler, less expensive ways to operate a small business, you are not alone. New, high tech tools and gadgets promise greater productivity, but many small business owners become disillusioned when that promise is never quite fulfilled. I think most of us have figured out that all the advancements made in Information Technology (IT) haven’t necessarily been steps in the right direction.
The key to getting the most out of your IT investment begins with making wise decisions and then understanding how to invest in planning, training, upgrades, and new technology. The principles outlined here can help you avoid the most commonly made technology mistakes, realize a greater return on your IT investment, and gain the loyalty and respect of your customers and staff.
1. Begin with planning
Building computer networks and business processes in an ad hoc fashion is very inefficient. Every organization that desires future prosperity should develop a one, two, or three-year technology plan, and a great place to start is to plan your IT spending. I’m not suggesting a single IT line item on your financial budget, but a detailed spending plan which includes the specific equipment, software and services that are expected to be needed in the foreseeable future. Refer to and revise it often.
2. Don’t put the cart before the horse
Evaluating, selecting, and purchasing software to accomplish a specific task should occur after you’ve fully defined the task or process to be performed. For example, if your goal is to keep better track of your customer relationships and sales prospecting activities, don’t jump right in and start evaluating customer relationship management software to see who has the best product at the best price. Instead, use a “Business Focus First” approach. Develop a process first, and then look for a technical solution that will make the process efficient. Think about the data or activities you want to track, which clients or prospects will be involved, how much time it will take to track, how the data be used or analyzed, who will input the data, and so on. Develop a complete understanding of your goal, and THEN figure out which technology is the best fit.
3. Get buy-in first
Making a purchase decision prior to getting valuable input and buy-in from those who will be using a new software application could result in a failed implementation. Resistance to change is part of our human nature. If not properly managed, this forced change could lead to workers developing their own processes to work around your new system, or worse yet, a mini-mutiny where they force you to walk the plank.
4. Train your workers
Lack of training is the number one reason that software is under-utilized. Many of today’s modern applications are full of complex and hidden features that are rarely used by the average office worker, but could help them become more productive. Training helps workers better utilize the tools they have been given, boosts their self confidence, and empowers them to excel.
5. Understand the limitations of your “office IT expert”
Most small organizations can’t afford a full-time IT person. Instead, they rely on their resident computer expert to keep their technology running smoothly. But implementing and maintaining today’s advanced technology solutions is often a complex task. There are so many details to keep track of, so many users to please, and everything seems to take longer than it should. Even though your expert may be brilliant, they likely will need help with the heavy lifting. It’s a smart decision to seek out a trustworthy IT consultant who can help with the complex issues, and help you make strategic decisions regarding technology use.
6. Keep your data secure
Because today’s Internet is such a dangerous place, prudent users should take every precaution to defend themselves from risk. It’s much cheaper to keep a virus, worm, or other malware off your computer network than to deal with the repercussions once you’ve been attacked. Invest in antivirus, anti-spam, and anti-spyware software, and keep your systems patched with the latest operating system security updates.
7. Think long term
Avoid reactive, short-term fixes. Trying to squeeze the last ounce of production out of that old, Windows 98 PC by getting it “tuned up,” is probably not the best move. A new PC with the latest software, protected by a three-year warranty, will be far less expensive to support and far less frustrating to the person sitting at the keyboard.
7 ½. Don’t ignore problems
Computer problems generally don’t go away on their own. If you see an error on your screen and don’t understand it, it’s wise to contact someone who may. For example, if the error indicates a hard drive problem, waiting until the hard disk grinds to a halt could cost you the loss of every scrap of your data. Acting quickly could save your data, hours of lost productivity, and most importantly, your reputation.
Jeff Dettloff is President and Chief Problem Solver at Providence, a Lansing IT Consulting firm.