The Small Business IT Skill Challenge

I live in a small city in a small country. As a result, there are a lot of small businesses all around me. Law firms with three partners, shipping companies with a couple of dozen trucks, and building companies with under a hundred staff. Almost all of the businesses where I live are small. Take a moment to look around at the businesses in your town or city. I’m sure there are a few big businesses. But for every person who works at a big company, there is at least one who works at a small business. Small businesses are a big deal because there are so many of them. This makes the IT challenges of small businesses a big deal as well. One significant issue for small businesses is getting access to people with the right IT skills.

Small businesses have the same basic needs for IT as larger businesses. They need IT to deliver applications that enable productivity and allow the business to profit. Small businesses are at risk of IT failure in the same way that larger businesses are. If they don’t receive the email with an order or cannot produce products due to application failures, then they are in trouble. Just like larger businesses, they have competitors that adopt new technologies for competitive advantage, and they need to remain aware of the changing IT landscape.

A huge challenge for these smaller businesses is their smaller budgets, resulting in smaller IT teams. Many small businesses do not have an IT team so much as a person, or a share of a person. Sometimes the person is a staff member with an interest in computers. This person has their own, non-IT job in the organization, but they are also the go-to person when computer problems arise. This staff member is usually interested in consumer technology rather than business-class solutions. Since IT is not this person’s primary role, they have less reason to stay up to date on technology advances and emerging risks. Alternatively, the IT person may work for a VAR or service provider and split their time between several small businesses. If there is a service or maintenance contract in place, then an engineer may spend a couple of hours each week with the business. The same engineer will spend time with a number of different small businesses and will be an IT professional with every reason to stay up to date. The VAR engineer is usually pulled in multiple directions by multiple clients and is often a junior engineer with limited experience. After a few years, most engineers aim to move on to project teams and up to design and architecture work. In this scenario, there is nobody whose sole job is to focus on how IT can help the specific small business.

Small businesses can be their own worst enemy. Some view computers as a necessary evil, costing a lot of money without adding value to the business. Where I live, we refer to this as “two-dollar Tauranga,” because businesses want a cheap solution today, no matter the long-term cost. The owners of these businesses view IT as an expense that needs to be minimized. As a result, they’re not inclined to spend on maintenance. As you know, any system that is not maintained will eventually fail. A major IT failure often involves loss of critical data. Small businesses are no more able to tolerate major IT failures than larger businesses.

One approach to keeping IT costs low is the same as that for large organizations: standardization. It is not so much about standardization within one business, however, as it is about standardization across businesses. The use of Software as a Service (SaaS) like Office 365 is an example. Rather than having a snowflake of on-premises infrastructure, every business that uses Office 365 gets the same service. These businesses also have the same support mechanisms. Another method is for a VAR to build a template-based infrastructure for small businesses. By using the same collection of software and hardware at multiple clients, the VAR can reduce its support cost. This lower support cost can be passed on to the customers, or it can drive greater profitability for the VAR.

Small business means small IT budget. IT is still critical to these businesses, and each business must choose how to get the most benefit from its limited budget. Small businesses have limited access to IT expertise and should aim to reduce the resulting risk. Using standardized services and expecting to pay for expertise are two elements of reducing this risk.