In many years of working with the small and medium business markets I have noticed that the majority of SMB IT shops tend to one of two extremes: massive overspend with an attempt to operate like huge companies by adopting costly and pointless technologies unnecessary at the SMB scale or they go to the opposite extreme spending nothing and running technology that is completely inadequate for their needs. Of course the best answer is somewhere in between – finding the right technologies, the right investments for the business at hand; and some companies manage to work in that space but far too many go to one of the two extremes.
A tool that I have learned to use over the years is classifying the behavior of a business against decision making that I would use in a residential setting – specifically my own home. To be sure, I run my home more like a business than does the average IT professional, but I think that it still makes a very important point. As an IT professional, I understand the value of the technologies that I deploy, I understand where investing time and effort will pay off, and I understand the long term costs of different options. So where I make judgment calls at home is very telling. My home does not have the financial value of a functional business nor does it have the security concerns, nor the need to scale (my family will never grow in user base size, no matter how financially successful it is) so when comparing my home to a business, my home should, in theory, set the absolute lowest possible bar in regards to financial benefit of technology investment. That is to say, that the weighing of options for an actual, functional business should always lean towards equal or more investment in performance, safety, reliability and ease of management than my home. My home should be no more “enterprise” or “business class” than any real business.
One could argue, of course, that I make poor financial decisions in my home and over-invest there for myriad reasons and, of course, there is merit to that concern. But realistically there are broad standards that IT professionals mostly agree upon as good guidelines and while many do not follow these at home, either through a need to cut costs, a lack of IT needs at home or, as is often the case, a lack of buy-in from critical stakeholders (e.g. a spouse), most agree as to which ones make sense, when they make sense and why. The general guidelines as to what technology at which price points set the absolute minimum bar are by and large accepted and constitute what I refer to as the “home line.” The line, below which a business cannot argue that it is acting like a business but is, at best, acting like a consumer, hobbyist or worse. A true business should never fall below the home line, doing so would mean that they consider the value of their information technology investment in their business to be lower than what I consider my investment at home to be.
This adds a further complication. At home there is little cost to the implementation of technologies. But in a business all of the time spent working on technology, and supporting less than ideal decisions, is costly. Either costly in direct dollars spent, often because IT support is being provided by a third party doing so on a contractual basis, or costly because time and effort are being expended on basic technology support that could be used elsewhere – the cost of lost opportunity. Neither of these take into account things like the cost of downtime, data loss, or data breach which are generally the more significant costs that we have to consider.
The cost of the IT support involved is a significant factor. For a business, there should be a powerful leaning towards technologies that are robust and reliable with a lower total cost of ownership or a clear return on investment. In a home there is more reason to spend more time tweaking products to get them to work, working with products that fail often or require lots of manual support, using products that lack powerful remote management options or products that lack centralized controls for user and system management.
It is also important to look at the IT expenditures of any business and ask if the IT support is thus warranted in the light of those investments. If a business is unwilling to invest into the IT infrastructure an equivalent amount that I would invest into the same infrastructure for home use, why would a business be willing to maintain an IT staff, at great expense, to maintain that infrastructure? This is a strange expenditure mismatch but one that commonly arises. A business that has little need of full time IT support will often readily hire a full time IT employee but be unwilling to invest in the technology infrastructure that said employee is intended to support. There seems to be a correlation between businesses that underspend on infrastructure with those that overspend on support – however a simple reason for that could be that staff in that situation is the most vocal. Businesses with adequate staff and investment have little reason for staff to complain and those with no staff have no one to do the complaining.
For businesses making these kinds of tradeoffs, with only the rarest of exceptions, it would make far better financial and business sense to not have full time IT support in house and instead move to occasional outside assistance or a managed services agreement at a fraction of the cost of a full time person and invest a portion of the difference into the actual infrastructure. This should provide far more IT functionality for less money and at lower risk.
I find that the home line is an all-around handy tool; just a rough gauge for explaining to business people where their decisions fall in relation to other businesses or, in this case, non-businesses. It is easy to say that someone is “not running their business like a business” but this adds weight and clarity to that sentiment. That a business is not investing like another business up the street may not matter at all. But if they are not putting as much into their business as the person that they are asking for advice puts into their home, that has a tendency to get their attention. Even if, at this point, the decisions to improve the business infrastructure become primarily driven by emotion, the outcome can be very positive.
Comparing one business to another can result in simple excuses like “they are not as thrifty” or “that is a larger business” or “that is a kind of business that needs more computers.” It is rarely useful for business people or IT people to do that kind of comparison. But comparing to a single user or single family at home there is a much more corporeal comparison. Owners and managers tend to take a certain pride in their businesses and having it be widely seen that they see their own company’s value as lower than that of a single household is non-trivial. Most owners or CEOs would be ashamed if their own technology needs did not exceed those of an individual IT professional let alone theirs plus all of the needs of the entire business that they oversee. Few people want to think of their entire company as being less than the business value of an individual.
This all, of course, brings up the obvious questions of what are some of the things that I use at home on my network? I will provide some quick examples.
I do not use ISP supplied networking equipment, for many reasons. I use a business class router and firewall unit that does not have integrated wireless nor a switch. I have a separate switch to handle the physical cabling plant of the house. I use a dedicated, managed, wireless access point. I have CAT5e or CAT6 professionally wired into the walls of the house so that wireless is only used when needed, not as a default for more robust and reliable networking (most rooms have many network drops for flexibility and to support multimedia systems.) I use a centrally managed anti-virus solution, I monitor my patch management and I never run under an administrator level account. I have a business class NAS device with large capacity drives and RAID for storing media and backups in the house. I have a backup service. I use enterprise class cloud storage and applications. My operating systems are all completely up to date. I use large, moderate quality monitors and have a minimum of two per desktop. I use desktops for stationary work and laptops for mobile work. I have remote access solutions for every machine so that I can access anything from anywhere at any time. I have all of my equipment on UPS. I have even been known to rack-mount the equipment in the house to keep things neater and easier to manage. All of the cables in the attic are carefully strung on J-hooks to keep them neat. I have VoIP telephony with extensions for different family members. All of my computers are commercial grade, not consumer.
My home is more than just my residential network, it is an example of how easy and practical it is to do infrastructure well, even on a small scale. It pays for itself in reliability and often the cost of the components that I use are far less than that of the consumer equipment often used by small businesses because I research more carefully what I purchase rather than buying whatever strikes my fancy in the moment at a consumer electronics store. It is not uncommon for me to spend half as much for quality equipment as many small businesses spend for consumer grade equipment.
Look at the businesses that you support or even, in fact, your own business. Are you keeping ahead of the “home line?” Are you setting the bar for the quality of your business infrastructure high enough?
Photo credit: Wonderwebby via Flickr