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Small businesses need the cloud — and a plan

There’s a lot of dissension in the small end of the small and medium business (SMB) world about whether IT pros should be leading the companies they work for or consult with to the cloud. I’m talking about the sub-100 user or even the sub-20 user market space. There are a lot of businesses in this section of the U.S. economy, and even more in many European countries and Australia. In the United States, about 96 percent of employers are small businesses with fewer than 50 workers, according to the Treasury Department.

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Few of these businesses will ever grow into larger enterprises, but as anyone who works in this market space knows, that doesn’t mean that they don’t need an enterprise-like feature set in their computer network. So the complexity is there, even as the budgets are tight and everyone wears more than one hat. Personally, this is the market that I prefer to work in. It’s fast paced and that excites me.

But some IT pros are feeling abandoned by Microsoft and others by the constant march to products with no more on-premises offering. Making the problem worse, new features and upgrades typically show up in the cloud and not in the on-premises version of the product, if there even is one. Some feel that their authority is being questioned on what is best. This is usually followed by an argument on how much control is left for the business to exercise over their data or a fear of not being able to help the business when something goes sideways. There’s also a real worry that the cash-flow pressure that the cloud introduces to small businesses are too great to be sustainable during an economic downturn. Others feel constrained to not go outside of the box in highly regulated industries.

Every one of these concerns is valid, but not one of them is a reason not to move toward the cloud. I’ve had most of these concerns myself at times, but it has not stopped me from putting into place a plan to bring most, if not all, of the technology needs of my clients into the cloud. Ultimately, it is my job to place my clients in the best position to compete and not make costly technology missteps. Not going to the cloud would be a dereliction of both these responsibilities.

Don’t cloud without a plan

I started my business because I saw a gap in services being provided to small businesses. I saw that small businesses were often winging it, grabbing at technology haphazardly without a vision of where that technology was going to take their business. They had an intention and a hope, but there was no plan. So in 2000, I quit my job and started an IT firm focused on small businesses. Till this day we use the tag line, “We care about your business” because caring that small businesses had a great IT structure to support their business and drive it forward as fast as their ambition wanted it to go was and is our driving force.

Over the years, we started to see other firms come along with similar visions. IT in small business became more organized and well thought out, even if there was no long term plan. At least where they were now wasn’t as chaotic as it was back then. But today we’re seeing a regression back into the chaos. The cloud is here, it’s easy to obtain, and workers are better at using computers and more self-sufficient.

Because of that self-sufficiency, if the businesses current IT doesn’t satisfy their needs, employees are very likely to “Google it” and sign up for some service that they think does. It’ll be in their name, and they’ll own the data in the account. That data will likely disappear when they move on. If it’s a service that has a fee attached, this will happen on the corporate dollar. The employee will probably even get praised for it because they solved a problem. This encourages more of the same behavior by other employees and pretty soon everyone is using different solutions, doing things their own way, and no one really knows who is using what or why and who has controls on the data. The business is also likely bleeding money and productivity supporting the disconnected resources. When an employee leaves, the next employee reinvents the wheel to get things done and the cycle repeats. It’s no way to run a business.

This is not different than what I observed pre-2000. Businesses without a plan can’t succeed at the rate that businesses with a plan can. The plan must include the cloud because the future is the cloud. But the cloud still needs a plan. Just because the server isn’t in your office anymore doesn’t mean that you don’t need a plan. Not all clouds are created equal and you need to know how everyone in your business can take advantage of a solution, and how you’ll keep control of your data and pass the knowledge of it on from person to person as time passes and what your ROI is for that solution. Even in the cloud, businesses still need to operate efficiently or else the cloud can nickel and dime you to death.

Stay ahead of the competition

Having a cloud plan will put a small business ahead of the competition. At this time, few have given it much thought. Most are either stuck on-premises with aging infrastructure or in the cloud using solutions made for home users or a bunch of randomly selected solutions. If you have a plan you will be ahead of your competition.

Just think about this one aspect: business continuity. You’ve probably heard about the need to backup and to decide which business functions are most important and have to get running again first in the event of disaster like flood, theft, or fire. This type of planning doesn’t change in the cloud either. The disaster types change to things like Internet outages, bankruptcy of the cloud-solution provider, or inability to recover your data, but the planning doesn’t change. Without a plan your business is as vulnerable as one without data backup.

Go hybrid

At the top of this article I listed the reasons why an IT professional might be reluctant to recommend a cloud solution. They are all valid some of the time but none is valid all of the time. What this means is that for most businesses, a hybrid solution will turn out to be the best strategy.

Hybrid means that some of your technology will remain on-premises and some of it will move into the cloud, but most importantly they will work together to take your business forward. Hybrid is the plan in action. Some businesses can go completely into the cloud, but most often there is some part of your industry where the best solution isn’t a cloud solution, and that’s OK. Once you’ve got a plan, you gain control of your data, and your IT infrastructure can move at the pace of your ambition in the most efficient manner again.

Get an IT pro who shares your vision

Most small businesses don’t have their own full time IT staff. To set the wheels in motion to move your firm into the cloud, you’ll need someone with a vision that matches yours. Consultants in this area have a reputation for being an inch deep but a mile wide, which means they know a little about a lot of things. That’s exactly what you need. Make sure your person is learning about cloud solutions, the direction of technology both in your industry and others, and has a good reputation for providing leadership.

Of course they also need to have the know-how to get things implemented and working and they’ll need a staff or network of other professionals to achieve it. Just like we can’t sit down and read all of the great books in library anymore to garner all of the knowledge in the world, so too your IT guy isn’t going to know it all. The world of IT is too vast and requires various levels of specialization.

Stay away from an IT professional who is entrenched in the past and isn’t looking forward to the next innovation. Signs of this include using older versions of operating systems. Beware the IT pro who says, “I don’t think that version X is ready yet. So I’m going to order the new computers with the older version” or “I always like to wait for the next version so I know the bugs are worked out.” Another warning sign is recommending an outdated standard, for example, “This application has been used successfully for 20 years.”  Of course it is written in a dead computer language that is no longer supported. They will tell you these things are OK because they are safe solutions. But the pace of the world is fast and getting faster.

Safe may mean safe, but it also means behind the times and small businesses can’t afford to be there. Globalization means that we’re not just competing locally, we are all competing with the world. There’s no going back to the slower pace of things. Change is happening and it is happening at an ever increasing speed. There’s no time for fear and there’s no reason to fear because we can see the future, apply our vision, and have a plan.

You’ll also want to stay away from the everything-in-the-cloud-always IT pro. These people are sometimes referred to as “born in the cloud.” They will not understand your on-premises network or the importance of a seamless integration between the two. You need someone with a foot in both worlds, because it matches where we are in the technology revolution today. You need someone with a technical skillset. Few small businesses can afford what compares to an interior decorator. Instead you need an interior designer, someone who can understand your vision and also has the skills to build it and support it after the fact.

Going forward into the cloud without a plan puts a small business at risk. It’s not enough that everyone now knows how to type and use a mouse. The world of the cloud is unpredictable and full of potential missteps that can set a business back. Having a plan is what makes the difference between a successful business and one that will be playing catch-up.