From the cloud to analytics to security systems, small business owners now have affordable access to the kinds of technologies that larger businesses have exploited for years. With the right technology in place, small businesses can use digital systems and services to grow quickly.
We asked two CIOs to share the key lessons they've learnt from running IT at larger organisations that will help SMBs to thrive in the digital age. Here are their six top tips.
1. Take advantage of the cloud
Unlike big enterprises that might be encumbered by owning large amounts of legacy technology, many smaller businesses have the opportunity to create a lighter, modern approach to applications – and that's where the cloud comes in.
Cloud spending by SMBs shot up significantly in 2021 and as many as 53% of the SMBs surveyed in a recent report by Flexera spent more than $1.2 million annually on the cloud. That's up from 38% in 2020.
Mark Bramwell, CIO at Saïd Business School, says your ability to move wholeheartedly to the cloud depends on the scale of your business. Some organisations will find it easier to embrace on-demand IT than others. But the aim for all should be the same: use as much as cloud as possible.
"When it's a start-up, it's obviously significantly easier to go cloud-native from the beginning," he says. "And compared to where we were 10 years ago, or even five years ago, those barriers to entry just don't exist anymore. Anyone can start up a business now and be in the cloud based on software as a service."
2. Create a strategic platform for change
The cloud makes it easier to buy technology, but be careful that the choices you make don't back you into a corner at a later date.
Bramwell advises small business managers to think like CIOs and take a strategic stance on every spending decision they make, whether that's software, networks or hardware.
"One thing I've always tried to build in the two core digital strategies I've put in place at Saïd is to make sure I get the foundations right from day one, because if you build on shaky foundations, they become problematic. Thinking about things like user experience, connectivity, security by design, scalability and growth from the start is something I would always try and champion," he says.
3. Focus on the value of data
With a tight grip on information and analytics, professionals at larger firms have seen how it's possible to understand in much finer detail how the activities their business undertakes affect company performance, customer satisfaction and the bottom line.
Bramwell says smaller businesses need to fixate on data, too. Understanding where your information resides is crucial. Small firms must think about how to access data, how to protect it and how to expand their storage requirements as the business grows.
"Your data is your corporate asset," he says. "You must think about where it's going and what sort of protection there is around that. And when you go into that area, you need to think about scalability and the cost of scalability, because part of an objective as a small business is that it's invariably built to become a medium business or a large business in the longer term. Making sure that scalability is in place in your thinking for the future is key."
4. Think of security in terms of risk
Your valuable data must be stored safely and securely. A failure to keep information under lock and key could mean confidential details leak beyond your firewall, which could be costly in terms of reputational damage and fines from regulatory bodies.
While following industry standards and reaching certification levels can help, Simon Liste, chief information technology officer at the Pension Protection Fund, says small business managers must hone their security stance on an ongoing basis.
"You need to evaluate your processes and know where the key risks are. What's the vector that's most vulnerable to being attacked? Look at that and then you can tie the resources – whether it's cost, time or people – to the data and try and protect it," he says.
"Also, education matters. Make your people aware of what phishing is. It's no surprise that the biggest single point of risk is people clicking on an email. So, start at that level because it doesn't have to be overly expensive. There's a lot of information that's out there from NCSC and other government organisations. Making people aware minimises the risk factor."
5. Don't get seduced by digital transformation
There's lots written about the importance of digital-enabled change. From launching new online channels for customers to providing technologies to help staff work remotely and securely, small businesses managers face almost constant demands for digitisation.
Yet Liste says it's important not to fall for the hype surrounding digital transformation. Yes, technology can help small businesses to change their operations for the better, but only if the implementation of IT is clearly thought through.
"Always understand your reason for change. Be clear about your objective. Why do you want to do it? Also, what's your ambition and what's your commitment? Because you have to be committed to change and driven to deliver it," he says.
"And if you're not sure, don't be apologetic about not knowing. It's okay to say, 'I don't know'. I think mentoring can help because then you develop and grow as you receive the right kind of guidance or support. So, I think for organisations that don't have expertise, it's OK to say, 'we don't know', but you must be very clear on what you're looking to achieve."
6. Build an ecosystem of partners
Liste says small business owners should look to create an ecosystem of people and companies they can work with. Whether its experts at major companies or smart-thinking entrepreneurs at start-ups, small business owners should reach out and make contact.
"Learn from mistakes that others have made," he says. "Grow your network and engage with people. Smaller organisations don't have the luxury of a big team. It's all about extending your ecosystem, sharing and giving back a little bit."