Updating and Managing Your Technology: A Primer

Tech planning is a critical area when it comes to the growth of your business. Don't leave it to the last minute!

Businesses existed before there were computers, fax machines, telephones and copiers, but few entrepreneurs these days would want to try to grow a company without the advantages modern information technology can bring. Merely having access to the internet--with its myriad opportunities for finding customers, building brands, researching suppliers and communicating with employees and others--can easily justify updating the technology in your office. For many companies, having the appropriate office technology can mean the difference between a successful expansion and one that falls flat on its face.

Managing technology and taking advantage of the opportunities it provides can prove daunting--particularly for small-business owners who lack an extensive budget and a dedicated IT department. After all, achieving success in this technology-dominant era is far more complicated than putting a personal computer and a printer on a desk. You now have to understand how to take advantage of an IT infrastructure, including a robust network, to compete more effectively. Ultimately, it's as much about vision--and developing a viable strategy--as it is about actual computing.

Too often, companies jump from one system or application to another but never realize the full benefit of their technology. Without a defined strategy, they make poor buying decisions, adopt ineffective tools, and often experience a high level of frustration. Businesses that excel typically establish technology strategies that help them gain a competitive advantage through cost savings, process improvements, faster time to market, and improved quality and service levels. These firms often exceed the expectations of customers, business partners and employees.

Developing a Tech Strategy
The smartest companies embrace a process for evaluating their technology goals and requirements before implementation. Your first step is to conduct an IT/network audit to document the technologies you already have in place and how they match your goals. You'll want to determine the strengths and shortcomings of your current systems and their relative importance to your business objectives. The audit should cover the following areas:

  • Your company's business requirements paired with the corresponding technology hardware/software/services solutions that address them.
  • A timeline for investment and deployment, showing how the timeline tracks to the priorities in the overall company business plan.
  • A design for a robust network architecture, which should include a network map of where your company is today technically--and how you plan to build your network in an evolutionary way.
  • Metrics and ways to measure the success of the IT investments.

Technology is vital to your business, but that doesn't mean you always have to have the latest, greatest piece of equipment or software. Here's how to evaluate your current technology to see whether it's time to upgrade:

Computers are most likely to need upgrading as a result of a software update. If you've recently begun using a new version of an important software package and your computers' performance seems unsatisfactorily slow, it may be time to buy new hardware. Otherwise, you can--and probably should--make do with what you have. Don't delay buying new computers just because the ones you have are only a few years old, though. During that span of time, performance of the models on the market typically doubles. Forcing customers and employees to wait on slow computers can cost you far more than a new system would.

Telephone systems should be upgraded quickly if a problem develops because they're your lifeline to customers and suppliers. If customers complain about being kept on hold, about phones not ringing or calls not being answered, you may need to add lines, improve your answering system, or perhaps hire more telephone operators. If you expect your call volume to surge sharply--perhaps because of an upcoming new product launch or seasonal buying--you may want to upgrade your phone system before trouble starts, making sure you have enough time to implement a new system, train employees and work out all the bugs.

High-end copiers can cost more than a whole office full of computers. Today's models are increasingly interchangeable with printers, thanks to the new generation of digital, network-ready copiers. Some late-model digital copiers will also scan documents and send faxes. But fancy features don't mean you need one of these costly machines. Upgrade your copiers when you experience or foresee a significant increase in the volume of copies you produce. Adding extras such as automatic document feeders and staplers are nice but probably don't justify an upgrade.

The great thing about the march of technology is not so much that the equipment keeps getting cheaper, it's that it keeps getting better. And while you don't want to be on the bleeding edge of technology adoption, one exception is when you absolutely need a specific technology that has been introduced very recently. Most new gadgets go through a steep price decline after an initial phase of high pricing. If you need something that's currently the latest thing but you can live without it for a while, you can save significant amounts of money by waiting to purchase until several months after it debuts.

What About Upgrading?
Even when you can't justify purchasing new equipment, that doesn't mean your old tech has to languish. You can always improve your office computers by making upgrades--adding memory or purchasing external storage devices or faster processors. Many people would rather prolong the lives of their computers than get rid of them, and upgrading piece by piece can also eliminate the learning curve needed to adjust to a new machine. You'll need to be somewhat tech-savvy to take care of these upgrades yourself--or have access to a tech savvy employee or friend.

Here are some of the most effective and least expensive items you may want to buy to bring your older computers back up to speed:

  • Hard Drives. One of the most important features of any computer is its ability to store large amounts of data. Many systems today come standard with 20 to 40 gigabytes (GB) of storage, but with the growing interest in digital music and digital video, even 40GB may not be enough.
  • Whether you need desktop drives to back up your primary hard drives or store your digital video files, or a portable large-capacity drive to carry a hefty business presentation, there are several solutions that may help meet your needs. Consumer hard drives, such as FireWire and FireWire/USB combo hard drives, offer anywhere from an extra 20GB to upwards of more than 300GB of storage capacity. Such external drives allow for quick transfer rates between systems and other drives. Most come with accessories and are easy to install, making the upgrade process quick and painless. And when you're ready to invest in new computers for the office, you'll always have the extra digital storage space on hand should you need it.

  • CD-ROM/R/RW and DVD-ROM/R/RW Drives. If you regularly use your computer's original CD drive to install or run software, listen to music and so on, you've probably noticed that it isn't as fast as it used to be. You'll find that CD-R/RW and DVD-R/RW drives are a good option because they allow you to burn large amounts of data, making them an ideal storage solution.
  • Processor Upgrades and Accelerators. Perhaps you're simply looking for a little more "zoom." Processor upgrades and accelerators allow you to increase the overall performance of a computer by allowing it to process information faster. Accelerators do this by shifting operational functionality and providing additional cache memory, thereby freeing up the computer's main processor so it can do its real job--running software applications. And with recently released processor upgrades available at great values that enable older computers to perform at faster clock speeds, anyone planning to replace office computers simply because "new ones are faster" should seriously reconsider.
  • Memory. While everything that's already been mentioned can help increase the usability of your current computers, one of the most tried-and-true ways to improve performance is to simply install more random access memory (RAM). If your office is running applications that require large portions of system resources, upgrading the amount and/or type of memory can speed up those applications and allow you to run more programs with less strain on your hardware. And with memory prices currently near bargain-basement levels, upgrading a computer's RAM is one of the most affordable options you have to prolong its life.

The bottom line is that even with computer prices dropping, the more you can do to upgrade your existing machines, the more money you're going to save until you're ready to purchase the new machines. In the long run, upgrading one piece at a time allows you to further extend the effective lives of your computers without cutting out chunks of your bottom line.

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