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The role of technology in small businesses today

Australia is a nation of small businesses – accounting for more than nine in 10 of our total businesses, and 33 per cent of Australia’s GDP. But according to industry research, small businesses could unlock an additional $49.2 billion of private sector output over the next 10 years by making better use of technology. And 53 per cent of this benefit could be realised in rural and regional Australia.

What exactly is the role of technology in a small business?

Most business leaders and entrepreneurs know the value of technology for improving output, through better communication with customers, and potential clients, and allowing employees to work on the move, from anywhere in the world.

But technology investment for any business can be more than that – it can offer improved communications between staff, and improved business processes with a relatively low overhead. What’s more, when deployed effectively, technology has proven critical to the growth of organisations, regardless of shape or size.

For example, we know that SMEs can face huge pressure from external factors that are often difficult to predict or even react to, such as late payments from customers, short-term promotions from competitors or regulatory changes. Technology has the power to control the “controllables” – through automation, increased visibility and better insights.

“To be fully operational at all hours of the day, SMEs need to “watch their backs” outside of peak hours. Split shifts and overnights don’t work when there’s only one person running IT, so tools to monitor the environment and activity are key.”

How can SMEs get there?

For SMEs who have realised the potential of technology and are ready to make the leap, there is one last hurdle. Regardless of industry, SMEs often struggle to maintain control over the technology-related assets they own, and can easily lose visibility of how well they are performing. IT is often seen as a cost centre, meaning even the best IT managers are asked to do too much. This makes them a potential single point of failure; their work becomes primarily reactive and they face a constant uphill battle to retain control of their IT domain.

However, IT managers hold the key to making positive, strategic contributions to help secure a company’s future. So how exactly can they get there? How can organisations ensure their technology plays a positive role in their organisations? And how can SMEs make sure their technology systems evolve with the growing needs of the business?

  1. Know what’s on the network

SMEs grow fast, but their IT systems can grow even faster. With so many new services coming online, and virtual machines being spun up, it’s easy to lose track of them. Monitoring software can be used to keep track of everything going on in an all too often chaotic IT environment.

      2. Supplement a small staff

Typically, when SMEs hire new employees, the initial focus is almost always on sales, marketing and product or services development. All those employees need IT services, but unfortunately the IT team doesn’t always grow at a comparable rate. As such, SMEs need to have the tools in place to help the IT team watch the infrastructure, alerting them to potential issues before they impact the business.

     3. Be operational 24/7

The increasingly flexible nature of employment has changed the work day. Employees need access to files and business applications 24/7, and at the same time customers need access to web portals and browser-based applications. To be fully operational at all hours of the day, SMEs need to “watch their backs” outside of peak hours. Split shifts and overnights don’t work when there’s only one person running IT, so tools to monitor the environment and activity are key.

     4. Keep an eye on cloud services

There is no question that the uptake of cloud by SMEs has played a major role in transforming the IT department – it’s efficient and can get early-stage companies online quickly and at minimal cost. However, cloud providers can have issues and system failures, too. And because cloud resources are often shared, peak load levels can be reached more often, causing slowness and affecting application performance. It is critical to understand the cloud services being used by the business to understand where issues may occur.

     5. Proactively plan for bandwidth…because it will increase

Bandwidth needs will increase as the business grows – there’s no getting around it. By keeping track of traffic patterns and analysing the data, IT can plan for growth and add capacity to the network earlier, before it becomes overtaxed and affects end users.

     6. Understand the impact of more users

Business growth inevitably leads to more employees, who can put a strain on IT systems with the addition of more workstations, phone lines, routers and other devices. Anticipating the impact of additional users on the system is critical to maintaining network stability.

     7. Control spending

SMEs spend a lot of time and money on technology. They spend even more when they are technology organisations – load testing, compute power, cloud storage, etc. Many of these services involve paying for scale, but those dollars add up when you forget to turn them off. SMEs can keep an eye on this by tracking usage and turning off services that are not being used.

     8. Have a responsible BYOD policy

Younger workers – and young companies – are all-in when it comes to BYOD. People want to work on their own mobile devices, and IT has to find a way to accommodate them. Mobile devices have a tendency to sop up bandwidth, and business-critical applications cannot afford to be slowed by an employee synching iTunes. By setting up a separate WiFi network for mobile devices and carefully monitoring it, SMEs can solve the BYOD bandwidth problem.

     9. Don’t lose track of certificates

Many so-called “sophisticated cyber-attacks” are not all that sophisticated. Hackers oftentimes take advantage of flaws – sometimes years old – in SSL certificates. Updating these is simple, but very easy to forget about. Network monitoring makes it possible to track all certificates on each device on the network, ensuring you are always up to date.

     10. Security

Cyber-attacks, especially Advanced Persistent Threats, take place over a long period of time. There is ample opportunity to spot anomalous behaviour on a network if the proper alerts and alarms are in place, whether it’s noticing brute force login attempts or an unusually large number of queries to a server.

George Wilson, Director of Operations – APAC, Paessler AG – PRTG Network Monitor

This story first appeared in issue 23 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine.

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