They find a way to serve many. They do it well, and efficiently. Their IT departments face a challenge keeping user workstations operating smoothly. How do they do it? I believe small businesses can operate their IT systems similarly and have less hassle as a result.
There are SIX major factors that the corporations master when it comes to IT that many small businesses don’t. Just focusing on these elements can keep your business free of IT issues and keep you and your staff working. These are:
1) Use the right tools for the right job.
2) Protect your systems with security measures.
3) Monitor daily and address small issues as they arise.
4) Don’t let staff install what they want.
5) Set a budget and keep to it.
6) Have a disaster recovery plan.
In this article, each of these six challenges are broken down into three simple a,b,c sections.
a) A description of the challenge
b) How do big companies do it? This section explains how bigger organisations face the challenge.
c) Smaller Business Lessons, where I give my advice on how to adapt big business methods to suit smaller businesses with a reasonable approach, achieving a balance between the goal and staying within affordable budgets.
So let’s look at these areas in more detail.
Use the right tools for the right job.
Many small businesses get this wrong by first buying the wrong kit for their needs. Some overspend drastically while others expect to be able to manipulate high resolution technical drawings on a £299.00 special offer laptop.
I could write a series of articles on this subject alone. Getting the right kit for the right job is not an easy thing. My best advice on this is most IT capital purchases, with few exceptions, should last 5 years. Not much more, because of the pace of technology, but not less. Otherwise they make a poor investment. Business is about making money not spending it but remember cheap kit will, in most cases, turn out be far more expensive in the long run.
Well they will get a slightly better deal buying 100+ machines than you will that’s true. So let’s not dwell on that as there is nothing you can do about it. They always stick to main brands. They NEVER buy bespoke hardware, (built by a mate who knows a thing or to about computers). The main reason for this is
i) Availability of parts,
iii) Quick replacement
iv) Driver availability.
They also standardise as much as possible.
Smaller Business Lessons: Buy main brands. I recommend both HP & Dell for desktops laptops & servers. Toshiba and Sony also make good laptops. These are tried and tested brands. A little more expensive but in my experience a little more goes a long way. What about MAC?
I have both a PC and MAC so I’m not biased either way. Macs are great for some industries but not so great in others. They don’t “JUST WORK” despite the marketing money spent by Apple to convince you they do. I often hear comparisons of both but if you spent the same money on a PC as you do on a Mac you will have the same experience. If you want to buy Mac then you should. Just check that you will be able to do what you currently do on a PC on a Mac. It is not always the case.
It is hard for small businesses to buy the same kit for all staff, as typically you don’t buy them all at once. Often a new machine is purchased when your workforce increases. Models don’t just seem to change weekly, they really do. That said if you can stick to the same model series. This minimises training and users often help each other when they know they have fundamentally the same desktops.
Main brands also offer Care Packs or Extended warranties. I’m a big fan of care packs with on-site parts & labour 4 hour responses available for as little as £60 for 3 years. That’s far better than most ‘mates rates’
It is also a good example of how Smaller businesses can leverage the resources of major corporations.
Protect your systems with security measures.
Obviously most people know they need anti-virus software and a decent firewall product, but I see many SLOW PCs & Laptops that are running free anti-virus products. Most slow PCs are slow because they are infected with viruses and/or spyware. Some are slow because they are just too old while others have so many services running in the background they just grind to a halt. Sound familiar?
How do the big companies do it? They always invest in a centrally monitored security system. This means an administrator is alerted to virus outbreaks and security hack attempts. Policy based security is used to allow some usersaccess to more information than others. Also encrypted corporate remote access gateways.
Smaller Business Lessons: Most anti-virus packages will offer good protection for approximately £60 per year. It’s not a lot to pay to keep your machines working well and your reputation in tact. (Don’t be the one that sends a virus to all their clients)
If you work from a single office, protect your network with a good firewall router at the very least. Usually £180 – £240 for small offices (2 – 25 users), £500 – £2000 for (25 + Users). Don’t rely on the router that came free with your broadband provider.
Firewalls, the good ones that is, can also fire alerts off to your IT provider. You can have these alerts sent to yourself but I wouldn’t if I were you. Instead get on with running your business and let your IT service provider deal with the alerts.
Monitoring doesn’t have to be expensive. My company offers a Monitored Anti-Virus solution for £60.00 per year per workstation. The same cost as the Anti-Virus software and we use corporate level anti-virus from Trend Micro to do it, which we include for free.
We are not the only IT Company investing in service provisioning. But we have been offering cloud based services since 2005. Long before our competition woke up. Sorry, but I couldn’t resist getting that dig into my competitors, who I know read my blog and hate me. Ha!
A Word to the wise – DON’T waste money limiting users time on face book and other social media sites. ENCOURAGE IT! You may not know it but there is a social media revolution going on and the big businesses are taking part and winning business. You should be too. If you thought the internet was just a fad, wake up. Social media is going to light up the world and is already changing the face of our planet forever. Noticed any regime changes globally or demonstrations organised through social media? Trust me social media is good for business.
Monitor daily and address small issues as they arise
You are unlikely to know, or care, but computer systems keep detailed logs on what they do, and how they work. They are fanatical about logging.
If you look at these logs – please don’t bother – you will see notes that the hard disc defraged itself and other such useless information about new patches that have been deployed. These logs have no place in the mind of the business owner but to IT professionals they give an insight and an early warning that things might be about to go wrong.
Big companies have IT departments that thrive on analysing these logs. They use many tools to help them do this and spend lots of man hours doing it and following up on the alerts. Why? Because this is the main way they keep critical systems running. I would wager that the chief executive at Ford motor company has never had a problem with his email.
Any problems with corporate systems are alerted to the relevant tech support teams who jump to it and resolve the problems before anyone on the top floor even notice there was a problem. Those techies that fail never stay in their jobs long. It is what they are paid to do.
A large part of big companies IT budgets go into this function.
Firstly, outsource this area. Don’t be tempted to do this yourself. There are many false alerts to wade through, many patches that should be deployed and many patches that will kill your system if you do deploy them. Keeping up with this is a full-time job. Well it is if it is done properly.
It doesn’t cost much to outsource Monitoring. (My company has been doing this since 1998. I’ve included this statement to annoy my competition even more. I’m sure they will delete this statement before they copy this article and pass it off as their own. To help them I’ve encased the bit they should delete in brackets! I’m not all bad. For the record we offer this at £15.00 per year per workstation. Help them get their pricing right too)
Patching and updates should also be outsourced. You shouldn’t rely on Automatic updates as they occasionally go wrong and cause big problems themselves. That is why bigger companies manage the updates with their own IT teams. They definitely DO NOT USE AUTOMATIC UPDATES. Remember they don’t like to waste money.
Don’t let staff install what they want
It is important to manage the applications that are installed on workstations. Firstly for licensing compliance, secondly toolbars and other seasonal tools such as advent calendars and Desktop Christmas trees, I kid you not, can and do take up processing power and memory slowing down computers and ultimately the workforce. Often tool bars will appear because the latest version of Adobe has been installed and the user didn’t un-tick the box that said “Include the Yahoo Toolbar”. Often I hear “I’m not un-ticking anything, I just clicked NEXT!”
Their IT Departments impose strict security policies on the machines requiring administration rights to allow application installs. This prevents lots of applications being installed in the background that eat up memory & CPU. It also prevents unauthorised information being passed to third parties outside the corporate network. Such information is passed by these applications and report on user behaviour and information to be used for marketing purposes.
Setup a separate administrator account that only the person responsible for system integrity has access to. Either an outsourced company or the most technically competent individual you have.
Don’t just let users install what they want. It leads to more problems than you can imagine. I would say approximately 70% of problems that hit my help desk can be attributed to system changes caused by installing software WITHOUT THE USER REALISING IT. This is why bigger businesses control staff workstations. If they didn’t, their IT departments would need more staff to handle the volume of support calls. Again they don’t like to waste money.
If you would like to compare your spending level against others in your industry this report in Computer Weekly magazine has all the figures you need.
If you are experiencing growth your IT spends will go up as a percentage but the figures in the above report make interesting reading and give you a good indication as to how much you should look to invest.
They, like you, will take into consideration any growth plans. Often these growth plans require system upgrades. They are referred to as projects and will usually have a special budget assigned to them outside the normal annual one.
They often look to strike a balance between on-site employed IT staff and outsourcing. It is normal for larger companies to have hefty budgets for IT and their own IT Department, but they never get carried away. They stick to percentage of income ratios and always work to a 3-5 year rolling plan.
They also need to consider new premises and expect extra costs to be incurred by all departments when they take on new office space.
Think about how you see your business in 5 years. Numbers of staff and whether they are mobile or office based. Are you heavily dependant on internet connectivity? There are few businesses that aren’t.
Consider broadband speed requirements if you are, especially if you are looking at new premises. Ask about broadband speeds to the area. This is nearly always overlooked. For some it isn’t a big deal but for internet dependant expanding companies it is a must.
A good IT consultant can really contribute to some important decisions. They are not expensive in the early days. My price is often a cup of coffee for an informal chat. But if you need more than1/2 an hour you need to pay me and I’ll buy my own lunch.
Have a disaster recovery plan
Systems can fail, they DO fail. Trust me they do. You need to be ready if your business is to survive. According to a report by the DTI, “over 80% of businesses who do not have a tried and regularly tested disaster recovery plan fail completely within 18 months of a significant loss of data caused by disaster”.
It is important to know how you would recover your data and how you would operate your business if your office was lost to fire or similar disaster
They have a regular testing and reporting mechanism. They consider immediate office relocation and all that it entails. Data backups are routinely restored from off-site and on-site backups to identical hardware or often virtual servers.
Telephone system fail safes are put in place with call centres ready to take a sudden influx of calls for the affected departments. Alternate business locations with ready to go replacement systems are often used.
In short they take it very seriously.
So many smaller businesses rely on backups being done weekly to local tapes or external drives. This is not enough.
You do need to spend some time thinking about how you could operate if your business premises went up in flames. Most small business owners think about hard drive failures and arrange for backups. If your backups are in the same building and the building is taken out you lose everything.
The reason it takes 18 months to go bust after such a total data loss is because that is usually how long it takes for HMRC to catch-up and you to realise you haven’t collected monies due to you because you had no idea who to collect from or how much.
So backup is good, but useless if you don’t test them once a month. Off-site backup of critical data also is essential but must be tested monthly.
Consider using a telephone answering service to take your calls in an emergency. You can divert to these service providers who answer in your company name and then pass on messages.
Consider people working from home. Not good for all businesses but it can mean you keep trading while you get your life back together.
The more hosted, online services you use the easier it will be to deal with crisis. Also there are those who can offer you a virtual server identical to your on-premises one running just 15 minutes behind on the cloud. These solutions cost around £500-900 per month so not for start-ups but as you grow you might want to consider it.
There are also office suites ready to go for short term rent.
These are all points to consider. Again it is a delicate balance of redundant systems verses budgets and ultimately you are the one to decide which options to take. Just follow in the larger companies’ footprints and take disaster recovery seriously. Once disaster strikes it is too late.
Hopefully you can see how following in big businesses footsteps and adopting a slightly modified verion of corporate IT policy can keep your business systems operating smoothly. This saves time and money with a little extra thought and investment. You too should minimise downtime.