Good IT strategy helps SMMEs get it right
Many small to medium companies can improve their productivity dramatically with small improvements to their IT infrastructure, according to Liquid Thought's Zulfiq Isaacs, himself the owner and manager of a successful SMME.
"Most SMMEs rely on the same handful of basic services and software packages," says Isaacs. "Typically people will have an ISP account which gives them access to the Web, e-mail and Internet banking, an office productivity suite that includes Excel, Word and PowerPoint, and an accounting package.
"Even at this level, any business can benefit from having a properly thought-through IT strategy in place that makes its existing investment in IT deliver real returns."
Choosing the right IT adviser can be difficult, however. "It's similar to choosing a mechanic for your car," says Isaacs. "How do you find someone you can trust to do everything that's necessary and nothing that's not necessary? A lot of companies, of all sizes, have had their fingers burned making big IT investment decisions on poor advice."
The first step, says Isaacs, is for SMME owners and managers to educate themselves. "It can be difficult to make time to think about your IT when you're absorbed in day to day tasks, but the investment is well worth it," he says. "There are plenty of Web resources that can be found via search engines like Google, and forums like Microsoft's bcentral.com provide SMMEs with valuable information and resources."
The second step he recommends is to use a network such as the Cape IT Initiative to find appropriate suppliers. "Often the best suppliers are SMMEs themselves," he says. "Some of the large ISPs have very good services for SMMEs, but on the whole corporates don't understand the SMME market very well. We're a lot needier than larger companies!"
Among the best productivity enhancing tools for small to medium businesses, he says, are document management systems and intranets. "Information-intensive businesses can start to experience productivity problems with fewer than 10 employees if they're working with shared files and folders on a network. The structures can get very unwieldy very quickly.
"An intranet replaces network file-sharing with a dynamic Web-based environment for sharing information. It's usually database-driven and much more powerful, more easily searchable and easier to manage than file-shares on the network."
Best of all, intranets are not the exclusive preserve of cash-flush large companies. "Windows Small Business Server 2003, for example, is a very powerful product. It includes MS Exchange Server for e-mail collaboration, SQL Server 2000 for storing data and Windows Sharepoint Services for creating a team communications and collaboration environment quickly and easily with the most basic of skills," says Isaacs. "Implementing a system like this takes some thought and planning, but it doesn't have to be an expensive undertaking - and it can dramatically improve your productivity."
Isaacs says he would also encourage small businesses to set up wireless Networks. "Especially in a young business, you're likely to be moving premises or reconfiguring offices, which can be expensive in a traditional cabled environment," he says. "If your network is wireless you can reconfigure or take the entire infrastructure with you when you leave."
He says, if possible, "the best approach is to define an IT strategy that is aligned with your business objectives and then to plan and invest upfront in good IT systems if you can afford it. Rather pay for optimal systems now than spend a lot more in two or three years to fix problems that tend to occur in IT environments that are managed on an ad hoc basis. Investment can be phased to ease the financial burden, and putting the right foundation in place at the start can save money and ensure reliable productivity in the long-term."