Small businesses are the new targets for firms that previously expected the corporate side of UK plc to pay the big money. PC Advisor's editor Andrew Charlesworth gives some advice on how to move your firm into the 21st century

Can the lessons learned in corporate IT be applied to a small business? Dell thinks they can, and held a seminar at the Institute of Directors recently to preach the gospel of well-organised IT to the IoD's small business members.

The secret to successful IT at any level, said Dell's small business manager Simon Calver, is to think through what you want IT to do before you buy it.

This sounds ridiculously simple, but there's a surprising number of directors of small firms who get on the phone to Dell because they have a vague notion that they need some PCs, or a server for a network.

Of course, this is no bad thing for Dell, because the company usually manages to sell the director more than he thought he wanted in the first place. But in terms of creating successful, growing and therefore happy customers, it is far from ideal.

Grab the reins

Directors of large corporates are always told that, rather than delegate IT to their techies, they should get involved themselves so that IT becomes central to their business strategy.

Does this mean the chief executive should be crawling under desks rerouting ethernet cables? No, but it does mean directors of firms of any size should take time to consider the fundamentals of their business and how IT can make it more effective.
Note effective, not efficient, which implies just cutting costs. Maybe IT can be used to create 'new streams of revenue', as the consultants say — that is, new types of customers, new sales channels or even new products or services.

Do your research. Only phone Dell when you know what you want, says Calver.

Calver also says: "You can't do everything yourself, so use a competent supplier." Naturally, Dell is the competent supplier he has in mind, but this line of reasoning extends to more than a PC supplier. For example, it makes no sense for a small firm to host its own website when there are plenty of ISPs who can do it well for a song.

Spend wisely

One of the big constraints on IT for small firms is money. You don't have £25K sloshing around in the current account to pay for 10 PCs, a server and five days' network consultancy and configuration. And you don't want to take out a loan and pay interest on equipment that's depreciating faster than a south American currency.

Have you considered leasing IT? It's a fixed cost, 100 percent tax deductible, and a computer equipment lease usually comes with the option to upgrade should the business take off and require it.

Once the new system is in place, any savings — time as well as money — accruing to the business should be tracked, because you can't evaluate and manage what you haven't measured. Then they should be ploughed back into further technology investment.

Finally, says Calver, make sure the new stuff fits with any existing equipment, so stick to open or ubiquitous standards and avoid the exotic.

In summary then: get the directors involved, research your IT requirements, use competent suppliers, develop sales channels, lease before borrowing, measure savings of time and money and reinvest both.

Now for the Don'ts

So much for the checklist. But big IT that can tick all these boxes is not necessarily good IT. Central government, for example, is renowned for flushing large sums of money down the IT toilet when it comes to high-profile projects such as the passport office or airtraffic control.

Despite the fact that these had ministerial backing, were based on a seemingly sound IT strategy, involved more research than a battalion of Sherlock Holmeses could have done, and were deployed by so-called global service providers, they still loused up.

Why does IT turn bad? Analysts have been pondering this for three decades, so here's four pitfalls to avoid from PC Advisor.

Don't keep changing the requirements: if you do the research and business process planning thoroughly in the first place, specifying the equipment shouldn't hold any nasty surprises.

Don't be tempted to cut costs by DIY. It's the other side of Calver's 'competent supplier' coin. Unless you really want to be studying to be an MSCE at the weekends, outsource the difficult stuff. This also has an effect on our first Don't — if, for example, you host your own website and the hits go through the roof, it's up to you to stop the webserver falling over. If it's outsourced, write it into the ISP's service level agreement.

Don't just automate existing processes, think what customers want and give it to them the best way you can. Let's say you run a small courier firm and the phones are ringing all day with people asking where their items are. Don't buy a fancier switchboard; install a web-based order tracking system so your customers can find out for themselves. Get it?

And finally: don't skimp on backup. If the IT goes well, your business will become reliant on it. Should the IT fail, so might the business. Consider buying two servers and running one as a hot standby. I'm sure Dell would agree — as long as it's a PowerEdge.