In part 1 of this post, I stated that as a general manager, you already have the skill set to ask the necessary questions to ensure that recommendations or decisions made by your technology staff are suitable for your strategic goals. A background in technology is not required.

In your own field of expertise, you already know that every decision has consequences. And yes, those consequences can go far beyond that immediate decision. Some brief examples I gave in part 1, you acknowledge that there will be  trade offs required when deciding volume vs. margin, or quality vs. cost.

So! here in part 2, I wanted to give a recent example that demonstrates basic questions that allow you to better understand these trade offs when it comes to your business technology.

The Task

In our sample case, a software developer was given this task;

Evaluate and then provide a recommendation on a software tool designed for software development teams.  (In this example it was a development team member, but this could have occurred with a consultant or supplier as well.)

First, this type of team based software tool is not like Microsoft  Word where you double click the SETUP icon and keep clicking next until it finishes. This type of team based tool needs a server, and it needs a database. In other words, a few more background tasks have to take place before you can use it.

After the evaluation, the recommendation was made to purchase one of the products to run on the companies local (on site) servers.

As a General Manager?

It sounds simple! – ask for an evaluation of  several products,  then receive a recommendation on one of them!

But is that recommendation the best fit for your strategies and your goals?Is this the best fit?

And this is where I want to demonstrate that you do not need to be a technology expert to ask the questions necessary to validate the decision. Basic questions similar to the samples I provided in part 1 can lead you into further detail on what the next level consequences may be of that recommendation.

This simple evaluation and recommendation of one single tool provides an excellent example of what we are talking about about asking basic questions that ensure that the recommendation meets your strategic goals.

Question: Does this idea fit into our current infrastructure and goals?

If your goals are to minimize internal IT bits and pieces, this recommendation fails. Installing this software on your  site requires servers and other IT infrastructure. In this case the tool can also be purchased on-line as a service which may be better aligned with your goals.

Question: Does it require new services such as new databases, servers, or technologies?

Perhaps the answer is that the tool simply uses a web server and a database – and that everybody just uses their existing web browser.

With that one answer to a general question, you have hit pay dirt.

Because you can ask; what web server? Do you even have a Web server at your site? Is it the right Web server that the software needs?

What database? do you have that database? or is something else that has to be either purchased, installed and maintained?

Question: Will this work with existing solutions such as our types of servers, or backup software or does it require new investments and skill sets?

Perhaps the answer is yes to all the above, but in may cases, the answer will be no. New skills would have to be learned, and new tools deployed. Perhaps it actually uses different technology than you currently use in your environment, That would mean you would have a second type of database server, or second type of web server.

In this type of case where you choose to duplicate services, complexity will kill you on operational and maintenance costs.

The SMB Takeaway

As a manager in a small to medium business it can be too easy to assume that every recommendation or decision provided by your technology staff or supplier has already considered the next level consequences of that recommendation or decision.

Unfortunately, that will not always be the case.

I hope I have demonstrated that you do not need to know one database from another to still ask the questions that will assist you in determining the consequences, both in cost, and in your strategic goals in any recommendation or decision that involves your business technology systems.

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Photo Credit bootload via flickr

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The title borrowed From a Small Biz Thoughts post of the same name: A Few Backup Rules To Save Your Butt

There is no auto-backup system that will work forever. Get over it.

Go read the rest

‘Nuff said

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Doing Backup Right

January 4, 2010

Backup, but Restore is key!

Brien Posey at Techrepublic has an excellent primer titled; 10 common backup mistakes

The article is excellent so I won’t repeat it here.

The questions

As a general manager in the small to medium business, your business technology staff tell you that they are making backups.

But the critical questions you need to be asking is; what is the time required to restore that backup?

The only way to carefully calculate your risk vs cost is to look probability of a data restore risk, with the cost of mitigating that risk.

So ask questions!

How long to restore data if the entire server fails? Is there another one available? or are you going to have to order a new machine, wait a few days for delivery and then have to restore?

How long to restore data if a server fails, and the backup tapes are off site? Is there turn around delays?

How long to restore data if all servers failed due to fire or flood?

The SMB Takeaway

It is too easy to say we backup our key data – but that is not the correct question! The correct questions are can we restore it? and how long will it take under various circumstances?

Because system failure happens. It is not if – just when

And if you were expecting that your IT staff or suppliers could replace a completely dead server in moments, when they know that purchasing a new one can take several days – you have a disaster just waiting to happen.

UPDATE: Joel Spolsky covers this topic excellently in this post titled;  Let’s stop talking about “backups”

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Photo Credit twicePix via flickr

I know, I know! Too often there is a poor perception of the IT function, staff, or service providers in our SME businesses.

And as Michael Hugos at CIO.com points out, the IT staff often contribute to this negative perception!

While there are a dozen ways that your IT staff or provider can shoot themselves in the foot this way, often this perception of IT can be created and re-enforced through jargon laced techno-babble, poor communication and circular logic on the complexity that makes up IT.

Mr. Hugos brings up two great questions for IT leaders;

How can we in IT more actively include people in discussions about possible solutions? How can we more actively include them in implementing these solutions?

But It Can Take Two!

IT must clean up its own image, and must be seen as contributing to solutions, not as being a roadblock to them. I agree with that 100%.

However, I also think that in many cases managers and executives in the small to medium business can also be unintentionally contributing to this negative perception about their IT function.

How?

Simple; they do this by keeping IT as invisible as servants in a medieval castle.

Keeping your IT staff invisible, and locked outside the doors of any communication and conversation about goals and strategy truly leaves your IT team in the dark about methods of collaboration that can contribute to working solutions.

A second issue for many senior managers at SME’s is that too often we can fail to take the trouble to even help ourselves when it comes to technology. This leaves open risks, and an unwillingness to acknowledge the pros and cons of what technology can, (or cannot) do for our business.

Self Inflicted Wounds

In a conversation a few months ago, the owner of a small business that provides technical and IT support for other small businesses told me that he had just fired a customer, and that he was the third IT provider to fire this customer!

Apparently this customer consistently and repeatedly called with angry, accusatory complaints about difficulties on their business network and business computers.

Yet for the vendors, the problem was always the same.

In spite of repeated warnings, and having the newest anti-virus and firewall software installed on their network PC’s, this SMB owner never let them operate properly, secondly he would bring his kids into the office on weekends and let them use other PC’s in the office to play with.

And play they did.

After every abusive , screaming support call, the service provider found the affected PC to be riddled with viruses and spy ware from the kids playing on business PC’s.

This business owner then would be yelling at his service providers. His attitude was that he should never have problems in spite of his own irresponsibility.

The SMB Takeaway

As Michael Hugos states, yes IT must help themselves be seen as a source of answers, not a source of frustration.

But at the same time, you cannot leave your IT team or provider stuck behind the 8 ball either.

Stuck Behind the 8 Ball?

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Photo Credit: 60 in 3 via flickr

 

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

Jonathan Fields dives into a great comparison of goal setting via James Collins’ BHAG‘s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) vs. more incremental Baby Steps in this post titled; Goalsetting Smackdown: Big Hairy Audacious vs Baby Steps

He prefers BHAG’s – follow the link to read more!

But First…….

I have to make a preface here! If you are a dozen people in a dorm or basement intent on generating revenue directly through technology by inventing the Next Big Thing, or building that killer iPhone app the world does not know it needs yet, this is not for you.

Because in that type of environment you have (by default!) set your sights on that Big Hairy Audacious goal, the Game Changer! the World Beater!

But for the majority of us in the SME space?

Well, we run on a continuum from fairly low technical maturity where technology is just to run accounting and E-Mail, to higher maturity levels where technology is used to enable and improve business processes. Either by assisting in revenue generation or reducing costs.

In our case, we are not trying to invent the next Twitter or Friendfeed.

Sure – We want to beat the world too – but by reducing cost of sales, getting word of our product or service out there. And reducing our SG&A.

And in our IT Goal setting, do we want BHAG’s or baby steps?

Well – Here is one warning with BHAG’s when it comes to IT goals.

The effects of change on both business and IT processes from any change in your IT and IT strategy are not linear. Like mortgage interest, they are compounded.

And like compounded interest, a little change can have some big time effects. And larger changes? if you change X Y and Z all at once, odds are that something is going to break, and as 80% of outages and IT related downtime is just finding out what broke. Well you see the risk.

Sure Keep Your Eye on the Prize!

Maybe that goal, or that prize is a BHAG – a Game Changer.

But I recommend you get to it by baby steps. Or as I have called it before, Learn To Dance.

Step, Pause, Adjust, then step again.

Enough from me – which do you prefer?

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Photo Credit NASA

I posted an article in March recommending that in the SMB space, outsourcing the configuration, management and reporting of routing and firewall devices. Those little boxes that protect our internal office networks from the Internet.

Allan Leinwand at Giga Omni Media posted an article on small companies that learned this the hard way.

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Wireless Weakness

January 11, 2008

January 11 2008

The December 15 2007 issue of CIO Magazine has a brief article by Thomas Wailgum that seems to reference a more detailed article at cio.com . While the article is pointed at retail industries, it is applicable to many businesses.

The article, plus its referenced study points out the benefits, plus the risks in enabling wireless networking in the business. Wireless networking is a great tool for productivity, ease of deployment, as well as other benefits. However if not managed appropriately, the risks can outweigh those benefits.

Wireless networks can be reasonably secure, however most small / medium business may not have the knowledge or expertise to implement security correctly on these devices. In some cases, I am confident that some may not know that there is some security steps that should be implemented. At the same time the “cool” or “easy” factor makes people want to use it, often that may be the business owner or other senior managers!

In 2005 TJX Corp, had information from up to 50 Million debit and credit card exposed via  hackers. While the sheer number of accounts is staggering, it all apparently started with a simple wireless price checking device. That “simple” device was not properly secured.

I find it unforgivable that a major retailer would not have the skills to ensure security of wireless devices, but in the Small / Medium Business (SMB) space, you probably have a technology staff of either zero, where you bring in outside contractors to fix what you cannot do yourself, or you have one to five or so Technology staff who are more worried about why you aren’t getting that email or why your PowerPoint presentation keeps blowing up, than looking strategically at what security threats that little wireless device could cause.

Why should you care if you have an unsecured wireless network? I mean, you really don’t do anything world critical right? There are many reasons that you should care;

1) Do you really want your Internet Service Provider informing you that they will cancel your account because millions of unsolicited commercial emails (SPAM) and email viruses are coming from your “office”? They are probably coming from the apartments across the street – but it is your network that they are using. Or worse, find that your customer or partner base is getting these SPAM emails as well, and it “looks” like it is coming from sales@your_company.com?

2) Trust me on this, you will hate the day you see a “low disk space” message on your server(s) and find out every bit of it is filled with pornographic or pirated material that is dumped on your server. Hey – why should they pay? they can use your internet connection and space for free!. Even consider just the plain extra cost if you have an Internet Connection where you pay excess overage fees if you use more than a certain amount of Internet traffic.

3) If you do any form of retail, the Payment Card Industry (PCI) standards will not be pleased if every credit card used in your operation is followed by illegal use somewhere else.

4) This one is rather amusing, but can be real, depending on your wireless and computer setup – intermittent connection problems with your wireless enabled computers? have you looked to see if your computer is actually connecting to someone else’s wireless unsecured network before it connects to yours? And you wonder why you can’t properly connect to your servers for months ….

How prevalent is the issue with unsecured wireless networks? if you are actually looking, the problem is everywhere. From my own notebook computer, from both my home, plus my office there are wireless networks with no security enabled.

As a senior manager with a SMB, the onus is on you to ensure that your contractors, or your staff take security seriously in any wireless initiative. If you are the lone “IT person” or provide contract services, you should be explaining these risks up front.