Guest blog: IT managers in SMEs

In reviewing one of BCS' recently published ebooks, one BCS member raises IT training issues and highlights a potential shift away from the outsourced IT model in SMEs.

In my review of “Management Skills in IT”, I found the majority of examples used were for much larger organisations; local government and large enterprise businesses where descriptions of people moving to roles as CIO of international businesses are good, but very few such vacancies are ever going to be available.

By contrast there will be a considerable number of positions open for capable managers within an SME and I would suggest that the demand for those IT managers with management skills within SMEs would be much higher. Therefore the need for adequate management training aimed at that demographic would be of considerable value to the individuals and to their employers.

This is not to say that the points raised within the publication are not relevant to those people within an SME; I would argue that good management skills are needed at all levels from the smallest business to the largest; and sadly are often lacking. Many of the scenarios portrayed can occur even within relatively small businesses, and the challenges will be as great; possibly greater, due to the reduced numbers of people within the IT teams.

It is still the case that many IT staff have little or no formal qualification; many are hobbyists that have turned their pastime into a job skill. Those that have undertaken formal training do so in a way that does not always relate to the actual job function. Most training is technically based and the quality of this can vary considerably. There is simply too little opportunity for most IT people to undertake non-technical training, unless they do so at their own cognisance.

I would suggest that part of the problem is one of perception; IT is still a relatively young industry compared to most other disciplines. The fact that technology changes so rapidly does not help; and as the majority of IT workers seldom work within an established  structure at any time in their career means that poor practice is commonplace, and good practice is not always easy to institute or disseminate.

A common argument at present is that the traditional IT department within the SME will cease to exist within a few years. The presumption is that businesses will outsource their IT requirements to larger specialist businesses that have access to more staff with a greater breadth and depth of skills. The thinking behind this is that the SME will then have the opportunity to gain the required technical expertise for a reduced cost, as the supplier can provide this support for many SMEs.

This view has been put forward many times and seems very popular within the larger businesses that see the potential for significant savings. However, we are now seeing many large businesses moving away from this; they have identified that the cost savings did not materialise and in many cases, the service level deteriorated. In a recent discussion with a senior manager at BT, she identified that there has been a significant shift away from the outsourced IT model amongst SMEs for that reason.

Food for thought, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on these issues?

Anthony Sutcliffe (PG Dip CCI, MBCS)

Comments (4)

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  • 1
    Tony Ball wrote on 27th Jan 2012

    The main problem with outsourcing ICT for any business (small, large, indifferent) is giving the baby away with the bath water. Too often, the outsourcee places far too high a reliance on the outsourcer by not retaining the in-house skills to adequately manage them. This results in the poor performance and eventual deteriation of the relationship. For the right thing to do on outsourcing (for any size business) have a look at work done by Professor Willcocks at the LSE regarding the essential skills required internally for the outsourcee to maintain control of the outsourcing relationship and actually drive performance.

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  • 2
    Paul Robins wrote on 27th Jan 2012

    Being a one-person IT Department makes me the equivalent of a GP. OK, it’s a little facetious as nobody dies if I get something wrong (not yet anyway) but the analogy holds.
    I have to know a little about everything and be able to turn my hand to any aspect minute by minute not knowing what will happen next. I am not overly worried about future employment with so many large firms laying off IT staff, because those roles are often the equivalent of the medical specialist – too narrowly focussed to do my job immediately, not always with the right people skills to do it well, and not always wanting the non-GP salary level either!

    The SME environment also means I see all parts of the business and have an understanding of it from end to end. I don’t have any opportunity to hide in a darkened room away from users and they all know my name.

    There are no suitable qualifications for this role as most are too specialised. I enjoyed gaining my ITIL foundation certificate before this job started, however it is only really suited to larger departments. It would though be useful to get if you’ve only ever worked in SMEs. I’ve worked in 4 to 30 person IT Departments so have seen all the different roles as well as having worked in technical support, software creation, system management and operations. I would suspect that lots of SME IT managers don’t get that level of IT exposure…

    As for outsourcing my role, the cost would be more and the response time would be worse. Help desk systems can log which machines have which problems and who calls the most, but they are never as good as knowing not only the machine well (because I chose it, ordered it, configured it and installed it) and the user because you know them, they know you and you know their particular IT foibles.
    Career progression however is not clear-cut. What role I go to next is open to question!

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  • 3
    Margaret Moore wrote on 3rd Feb 2012

    Having been a one person IT department I agree with Paul's comments and describe myself as a generalist.

    Career progression is unclear - but I hoped that my wide knowledge would be an advantage. However, having relocated I am looking for work and find that the ads are for the specialists. So I'm working towards supplier certification.

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  • 4
    diana wrote on 13th Feb 2012

    I agree with Tonys point.
    Skills are needed at all levels from the smallest business to the largest in other to achieve a progressive business environment.
    I don't see perception as wholly the part of the promblem but technology changing rapidly and why good practise can not be easily instituted in a relatively young industry.

    Does outsourcing the IT reguirements to a large specialist business really help, though it helps saves cost and assist the SME grow. There will be no expertise and technical knowledge if there are IT teams in the SMEs not outsourced and i agree that service will deteriorate.

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