Crawford also struggles with giving employees access to the systems without measuring whether they have proper training. Hiring managers don't always think about IT competence when they are looking for accounting or marketing staffers. "They hire the person and want them to have immediate access, and assume they understand how the system operates," Crawford says. "In many cases, the new hires are not as knowledgeable as they might seem." One way that Amarr's IT staff helps get new hires up to speed is by running "train the trainer" sessions so the department managers can teach their employees what they need to know, rather than waiting until the IT staff can hold its own training sessions. Crawford's team then provides ongoing refreshers to the entire organization through periodic Webcasts and review sessions.
"If you are adding a lot of folks, you don't want something that requires a lot of training," says Prometheus' Fritsch. He says that the IT staff should think about the non-IT skills needed for a specific job, then make sure that the IT skills that would also be required match. In too many cases, he says, the IT skills are often greater than the other job functions, so companies end up hiring people with greater skills than they would otherwise need. This not only leads to increased payroll expenses, but it also adds to staff turnover when people get bored and quit.
An additional challenge at an SMB is keeping the IT staff engaged. There is a limited career path within the company given their expertise and ability to affect the business. Managers can help their staffers grow in their jobs by giving them new responsibilities. The good people will want to expand their skills along with the company's expanding information systems. "I have a fantastic team of people," Smith says. "A lot of my role has become making sure that they are challenged and they are happy."
It's tough out there for SMBs right now, especially with rising fuel and healthcare costs. And yet, it's always tough. And it's always a great time to be in business. There are always fabulous opportunities to slice through the problems on the way to new performance peaks. "This is a wonderfully transitional time," says IDC's Boggs. "Technology can alleviate some of the burden of higher costs now while helping companies plan for the long haul."
And what's next for an SMB that has mastered the basics of information technology? "The key to the future success of an information technology organization is not solely based on supporting the manufacturing applications," Crawford says. "The true value comes from giving senior management metrics that can drive the business forward. It's about business intelligence."
Presenting changes in the data in the management information system can help executives identify potential problems before they crop up. These tools can sharpen that critical competitive edge if the company's IT system is well structured and robust. "We've got major initiatives to make sure we're at the forefront of our industry," says Crawford. "We believe we have significant competitive advantages through IT."