Building a tech plan

By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven in The Upstate Business Journal on March 29, 2013 

Does your business have a technology plan for the next five years? No? Well, you aren’t alone. Quite a few businesses make the mistake of not planning for technology - an oversight that can result a pretty big unscheduled expense.

At the same time, though, a technology plan should be based on business needs, not the newest, coolest tech advances. If the new technology doesn’t support your business goals, then the expense doesn’t make sense. Technology is a means to an end, not an end on its own.

Here are some key factors in developing and executing a tech-informed business strategy.

Look Forward: If you are moving, you can never know exactly where you are because by the time you have identified your location, you are past it. This is nowhere more true than in technology. Today’s hot tech is tomorrow’s eBay daily deal. Purchasing new technology means creating a replacement plan and budgeting for it. Mobile tech may have a 2-3 year cycle, laptops might hold out for five years and business-class servers (if you maintain your own datacenter) have a usable life of 7-10 years depending on how upgradable they are.

Don’t overspend: It is easy to overbuy in technology. Servers are a good example. A business-class server can easily cost more than $20K - depending on how geeked out you want to get. But is that what you need? How many users will connect to it? What is it used for - interactive applications or storage? Make sure you aren’t buying a Ferrari if you really need a Cadillac.

Get IT out of the datacenter: Set up a working group (I don’t like “committees”) to include technologists and savvy business users. They are best positioned to know how things are really used, what their challenges are and what would really help. User input has to be balanced by some technical acumen since people often can't see beyond what they know. Involve people who are open to new ways and then mash them up with your technical staff. Both will benefit from the experience.

Don’t fly blind: For any new deployment or system, set up small targeted pilot programs designed to find the flaws. There are problems with every tech deployment. The key is to identify them early and correct them at a time when the impact on your business will be minimal, not monumental. Take your pilot program seriously and implement - or at least consider - the suggestions that come from it.

Training: Time spent training and developing staff to understand and use the technology is the best way to ensure high adoption rates for your project. And that's where the ROI payoff really comes. Adults learn differently. They need repetition and reinforcement - to see the same message in some different ways before it sinks in. A hybrid training program should include a mix of sit-down, classroom-style training, some printed materials for reference,  online accessible videos or screencasts (where possible) that show me how to do things properly. Remember that training is an ongoing process and building a library of materials, webinars, how-to documents and a user community is important to maintaining the integrity and efficiency of your operations.

Reinforce: Make sure everyone knows that you see the work they are doing and that you make them aware of the benefits the technology is bringing. Bring it to levels they understand, such as increased sales, fewer customer service complaints, more revenue, reduced errors. People want to have pride in their work. Let them take some credit for things working out.

Roll down: Never plan on replacing everything at once. Work on 10-20 percent replacement plan each year, depending on what your budget can handle. It is easy - but inefficient - to take out the old computer and put the new one right there. But if the employee who is going to get the hottest new tech is not a power-user that’s a poorly aligned resource. Come up with a roll down plan that puts the newest and most powerful technology in the hands of your power users and those who will most influence business results. Then roll their equipment down to others.

Waste not, want not: Even after rolling out and rolling down, you may have plenty of uses for older equipment. If your business continuity plan (you have one, right?) requires that you be able to set up shop in a temporary location, you will need some computers. Some of your older equipment may still be serviceable in an emergency. Load it up with your mission critical software and store it offsite. Don’t forget to re-evaluate your offsite equipment AND your BCP when new software or systems are deployed.

Technology for technology's sake is often a waste of money. But driving your business with good technology moves make you more nimble, more proactive and more responsive. Your entire team must be a part of making that happen. Not only your IT department.