The Nature of IT in the SME

In Ireland, as in most countries, there are more small and medium-sized businesses then there are large enterprises. These smaller firms are competing at home and abroad in a wide variety of industries spanning traditional manufacturing, sales & distribution, and a host of diverse services, but they all tend to follow a similar development path particularly when it comes to Information Technology. Companies with less than 250 employees tend to have smaller IT departments (if they have any permanent IT staff at all that is) excluding of course those that are directly engaged in the IT industry, or those that have a strong knowledge worker focus. Even some larger businesses often have fewer IT resources if they just don’t think they need them (on two different occasions in the past I’ve been employed as the sole permanent IT resource in businesses that each had over 500 employees, both engaged in high-volume manufacturing).

Large Enterprises like Reynholm Industries often have small IT departments

Companies of this nature tend to unfortunately consider IT as an off-shoot of the Finance department and it’s not unusual to find an “IT Manager” reporting to the Financial Controller. This reporting line can work well given the right circumstances and people, and it’s even easy to see how things developed this way, with computers having first gained a hold in businesses as tools used by accountants to crunch numbers in spreadsheets and for preparing monthly, quarterly, and annual reports. Thinking of IT in this way though is more than a little old-fashioned and utterly misses the opportunity IT presents to achieve a range of strategic business goals. IT cannot be limited to being a sub-department of another and allowing this structure to remain in place puts a distance between the management of the business and the department that can really help when it comes to finding efficiencies, leveraging the use of data, streamlining processes, and a host of other developments that can aid every department and the organisation as a whole meet the targets it sets for itself.

In a cruel twist of fate and regardless of the structure of the organisation, as more forward thinking businesses seek new competitive advantages they put higher tactical and strategic demands on their IT resources but without taking into account what that really entails and without considering the unusual dual nature of IT in the small to medium enterprise.

While it’s all too easy to consider IT as merely being “everything to do with computers” there are in fact two very different aspects to the provision of IT services to an SME. On the one hand is the part that every business computer user has encountered at one time or another, Technical Support, and on the other is the dynamic and professional sounding but nearly always doomed field of IT Projects.

Technical Support is concerned with the ongoing maintenance and administration of the systems in use in an organisation as well as the delivery of assistance to the users of those systems whenever they run into difficulties which, as everyone knows, is quite often. For Tech Support staff the needs of the end-user and the contents of the server room are paramount. They may find that their performance is assessed on the basis of helpdesk tickets resolved in line with an SLA or in less formal arrangements by the amount of noise generated by the user base (with quieter users generally equating to happier users).

IT Projects pretty much covers everything else that gets thrown the way of the IT department from time to time, from big important projects like implementing a new ERP system to smaller tactical project work like getting a departmental level database up and running.

While both areas are looked after by the same department and often by the same person they require radically different skill sets and characteristics, and it’s this extreme difference that tends to go un-noticed when it matters most and without considering that difference it’s very easy to make a terrible mis-step when hiring people to work in the IT department.

Next up, I’ll take a closer look at the nature of Technical Support.

Part 1: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum

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