Small and mid-sized business owners may be unaware of pressing IT problems going on behind the scenes — after all, they’re busy trying to run a business. But small problems can snowball into much larger ones, and ultimately impair that business. Employees might have a better grasp of what’s

working and what’s not. But how do proprietors get feedback without opening the floodgates to a stream of petty complaints?

SMB business owners need to set up a process so they can be kept apprised of potential IT issues that could affect their organization, says Michael Hyjek, senior analyst of customer segments with Toronto’s IDC Canada. “Several SMBs we talked to had either formal or informal IT committees which assessed IT needs, then recommended a solution to the top level of their company,” he says. Line-of-business managers should identify their needs to the IT committee, which can then assess that requirement.

“SMBs tend to be reactive and buy on pain,” he adds. “When that pain becomes critical they seek a solution.” Instead, they need to be more proactive in identifying and prioritizing immediate business needs, he says.

Most of the knowledge SMBs gather about technology comes from their peers, says Mika Yamamoto Krammer, research vice-president with Gartner Inc.’s small and midsize business research group. She estimates only five per cent of business owners have an above-average understanding of technology and how they can take advantage of it. “That’s not to say the balance of business owners are ignorant,” she says, “but just that they’re trying to run their business and they’ve got other things to focus on.”

By virtue of their size, SMBs are typically more ad hoc in the way they make decisions and how they run their IT departments. “Often formalized roles and functions don’t exist as they do in large organizations, so it becomes more challenging to really operate within that IT environment,” she says.

Inertia is another challenge — especially for employees within SMBs who “get it” when it comes to the benefits of a certain technology but have to overcome the cultural inertia of their proprietors.

“I think a small or mid-sized business [owner] would be remiss not to ask their employees what works, what doesn’t work,” she says. But, she cautions, don’t ask if you’re not willing to listen. “Often I find there’s gratuitous questioning of employees on what they think and that information is never used, so the employees are somewhat disenfranchised because they feel that they’re not heard.”

Krammer recommends putting together committees at all three levels of an organization — the employees, middle management and senior executives — to discuss the advantages, disadvantages and priorities for technology investment. This provides three different perspectives on technology issues within the organization.

Or, a business can hire a service provider to do the work for them. “A word of caution would be to make sure the company they go with has an established track record with companies of their size within their region, within their industry, and that service level agreements and expectations are set up front,” she says.

“With small businesses, usually the owners are very involved in the purchase, and ideally they’re looking for help with their business problems,” says Todd Irie, director of market management for NexInnovations, a service provider based in Mississauga, Ont.

Irie says business owners first need to get feedback from their employees to identify those business problems. Do they want to improve communications, acquire new business or boost customer service levels?

“We go in and look at their technology infrastructure and make recommendations on how technology can help meet that business problem better,” he says. If an SMB decides to go this route, Irie recommends it look at the level of service provided, as well as the flexibility of options and service bundles.

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