Mongrel or pure-breed?

The role of the IT director is no longer simple to define. Those in small-to-medium enterprises have taken on a hybrid of...

The role of the IT director is no longer simple to define. Those in small-to-medium enterprises have taken on a hybrid of responsibilities and a plethora of problems

Much is written about the "hybrid" IT director, a leader operating at many levels within an organisation. While in large companies this role has to be defined, in small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs), the definition is automatic.

In a traditional engineering company employing 500 people, for example, the term business alignment does not apply, as the IT director will also have responsibilities for finance, and perhaps human resources. The IT director may even double as the managing director.

However, IT leaders in these organisations also face unique challenges. A road haulier in Bristol is at present facing a huge issue with its "off-the-shelf, bug free" software package. Lacking any project management expertise, or overall IT knowledge of any kind, companies such as this become totally reliant on its supplier, which in turn treats such clients with low priority and thus not worthy of too much attention.

I also know of a printing company in Guildford that has an issue with support on its small, internal network. All of its equipment is leased, and when they recently added two new PCs, the supplier suggested they stay with the same contract period for all hardware. "It will be much easier for everyone involved," the supplier said.

The company trusted the supplier and signed, only to find that the new contract covered all of its PCs - some of which were two years old! It had just renewed the contract period for its entire asset range. This is a frequent trick used by leasing companies - so beware.

Many of the challenges faced by SMEs are the same as those in larger organisations, but on a different scale. As the company grows, the IT director will be uniquely placed - most definitely on the board -to avoid these developing into major problems later on.

Listed below are three main challenges that small-to-medium enterprises face, and some actions that will avoid them growing out of control:

Supplier relationships

  • Speak with others in your industry to find out the names of the best suppliers - join a user group for any software on which you are dependent.
  • If things go beyond repair act fast through the small claims court, or arbitration.
  • Go with gut feel when selecting this is just as reliable as any other method.
  • Total cost of ownership

  • Start with standard PC/ network/desktop software, and keep to it.
  • Link everything done to bottom-line financial benefit, rather than being carried away with the technology
  • Avoid unofficial software being installed from day one.
  • E-commerce

  • Use the Internet to appear larger than you are - take on anyone.
  • Become a dotcom company - every company can market, communicate or trade over the Web.
  • Don't get carried away with the technology - everything has to have a business reason, and a commercial imperative.
  • Many newer SMEs offer a unique environment and style - driven by energy, action and human potential. IT leaders in these companies are well placed to use new technology to help their companies grow fast, without losing that all-important culture.

    David Taylor is president of the association of IT directors Certus.

    Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)

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