Tech Toolkit: Start the new year with technology planning

For small and midsize businesses, technology purchasing is based on reaction rather than planning. If a laptop breaks or a security breach begins melting the network, then it's time to get shopping.

But taking the time to plan for that outcome can reduce the risk of problems and even boost overall business growth.

Although it's nearly impossible to predict all of a company's technology needs for the year ahead, setting aside some time to develop a plan will likely result in fewer problems and better control. With that in mind, here are some tips on what areas of tech to examine and how to determine what you company needs:

Take a larger view

The first, most important step is to breathe, advises Martin Thomas, co-owner of St. Paul-based Lotus + Lama, a computer consultancy and website design agency.

''Don't buy anything new until you know what is not working and fix or investigate that first,'' he says. ''Focus on foundational pieces like security, password management, email infrastructure, backup, syncing between devices, good file management, clear mission statement and website.''

Delay hardware purchases until a plan is developed

Thomas believes that once those elements are examined more closely, many purchases can be avoided. In fact, buying new hardware can often worsen existing problems if those components aren't in place because data will become more fragmented.

''Leaving a trail of data littered amongst new and old machines in incompatible sync and data structures can happen if you bring in new hardware unnecessarily,'' Thomas says, adding that new hardware should be purchased if technology is older than five years, broken or not compatible with newer applications.

Focus on password

management

When examining different parts of a technology setup, make password management one of the most important elements for analysis, Thomas says. Without proper password strategy, all other decisions in the online world pale in comparison, because one hack can bring a company down.

Understand what's critical

After looking at "foundational" pieces, view your technology mix in terms of business continuity, advises Phil Fortmeyer, a partner at Clear North Technologies, an IT consultancy in Plymouth. ''Make a list of critical business applications,'' he says. ''What can't you live without for four hours or eight hours? Many business leaders now consider email critical, for example.''

One way to determine critical need is to think about what would stall business operations if the entire system is down for a few hours. If salespeople have access to Web-based email through their mobile devices, for example, it's likely that email accessibility within the office isn't as high a priority. But if those salespeople can't do business because they lack access to certain applications, then protecting those apps becomes more important.

Budget wisely

With so many technology options, it's possible for a tech budget to spiral out of control. Fortmeyer thinks a company should have money set aside for technology--but not a bottomless amount.

Determine next year's technology budget by compiling the past three years of technology spending as a start and looking at the average amount. Although there will be new factors such as changes in employee numbers or demand for more mobile devices, those past numbers can be a good place to begin planning.

Plan on more planning

Many times, companies have stellar enterprise planning that can project growth and hiring into the next decade, but their technology decisions occur on a day-to-day basis. Changing your mindset about technology planning can be quite useful for synching up with that enterprise planning.

''People need to take the time and bring consciousness to their technology needs and their motivation,'' says Thomas. ''Many people are frustrated with unresolved issues and being overwhelmed. They want a quick fix where there is none.''

But getting into the habit of regular technology planning and knowing tech fundamentals will help any company get a better grasp of digital assets and how they're being used. That leads to better management and fewer emergencies.

Call in the experts

Calling on consultants such as Lotus + Lama or Clear North Technologies can be useful for getting some expert perspective on an overall technology plan, especially if a company has spent the past few years in reactive mode. Because IT consultants have an array of clients, they're often familiar with different types of technology configurations and plans and can share insight about best practices.

Even if an enterprise has an IT professional on staff, it can be useful to bring in outside expertise to brainstorm, share resources and even hear horror stories from other companies.

"Together, you can all determine how to make your business more competitive, lower your costs and increase revenue," says Fortmeyer.

Regardless of whether an expert is brought in, simply taking a couple days to look at future technology needs can propel an enterprise forward, Thomas says.

''We have so much technology horsepower but don't use it to truly organize and protect our data,'' he says. ''Triage is often the only motivating factor in tech decisions and often leads to hasty investments without a plan.''

Elizabeth Millard has been writing about technology for 16 years. Her work has appeared in Business 2.0, eWeek, Linux Magazine and TechNewsWorld. She attended Harvard University and formerly served as senior editor at ComputerUser.

Published: Mon, Dec 31, 2012

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