We’re speaking to Andrew Mitchell, the IT manager at Suresite, who provide a wide range of electronic services for SME retailers, including payment card processing. He has been involved in the IT landscape for over 30 years, so has seen plenty of changes and understands which IT functions really help businesses.
Here is our Q&A with Andrew, discussing ways businesses can develop and implement strategic and beneficial IT functions.
Firstly, we’d like to know how you got your start in IT, and what inspires you to develop IT strategies and solutions for customers?
My first job was in the accounts department of a small hotel group. We used to do stock takes by hand on paper and it took forever. Eventually, in 1987, our team got its first computer. I quickly learned how it worked, and have been hooked ever since.
The work took a fraction of the time it did before, and the computer gave us a new level of efficiency and built capacity within the department. Everyone else hated the computer, but I had an instant affinity.
The hotel group was taken over several times in quick succession and on each occasion, a new IT system was put in place. The constant change floored a lot of the employees, but I found it exciting and realised I could adapt to new technology very quickly. I had found my niche.
I'm still fired up now by those same drivers I discovered in my first job: that the right IT can not only build capacity and elevate efficiency levels through the roof, but it can also give a business a competitive advantage.
When in a business’ lifecycle should they start to look at the future IT requirements of the operation, and incorporate these into wider business decisions?
As early as possible. In an ideal world, IT infrastructure would be planned with plenty of room for expansion when a start-up is still at the ideas-on-the-back-of-an-envelope stage. But in reality, this seldom happens. Unfortunately, most small businesses don't start re-evaluating their IT until cracks have started to show in the system. And as the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
An underperforming IT system will inevitably start to cause business disruption, which comes at a great cost. And organisations that live with systems they have outgrown become more and more inefficient as time goes on. People are resourceful, and as their technology lets them down, they start to build their own processes outside of the IT system. It doesn't take long for these shadow IT add-ons and workarounds to become ingrained and they can be difficult to undo even once an upgrade is carried out.
Many IT systems and solutions are available in both bespoke and off-the-shelf formats. How should businesses approach the decision to go for a bespoke model or a more standardised system?
As an IT manager, I have an inherent bias towards insourcing, as I want to keep my team busy and engaged. However, it is a decision that will always come down to resource, cost and timescales which are dictated by business aspirations.
Sometimes, despite having the resource in-house, I might decide not to build from scratch, but to procure an off-the-shelf solution and then have my team configure it to find the most perfect fit.
The training business within our group of companies is currently in need of a new training portal. We have the skills in-house to deliver this to the highest standard, but in this case, have decided to outsource to a third party as this will deliver the timely result they are after. Competing priorities mean my team is not best-placed to deliver the portal at this time.
This is frustrating as it would be an interesting project to deliver but, IT must remain an enabler for the business, rather than a blocker.
For IT departments and project managers looking to secure funding for new IT functions, how should they approach key stakeholders with the request?
Many of the SMEs I have worked with lacked a recognised project management or programme management framework, and so struggled to identify and prioritise what was important. At Suresite, we use an agile project management framework. The first stage - the pre-project phase - is a feasibility study.
If someone within the business has an idea that they want funding, then they complete a feasibility template describing the problem and the desired outcome. Basically, the current state and the future state. The proposal takes into consideration both benefits and risks, capital costs and the additional cost in man hours.
Once this is presented to the board, a decision is made as to whether the proposed spending is aligned with the strategic direction. Each project is then enrolled into a programme of works. This programme is designed to manage multiple projects minimising pinch points across the business.
How regularly should a business review their needs and targets, and address whether updated or improved IT functionality could help them achieve these targets?
IT is constantly moving forward, irrespective of whether your business is in a growth phase. And if you're not moving forward, you are going backwards. Time and tide wait for no man - and neither does IT.
Lots of business owners see IT spend as an unwelcome number on a balance sheet and do what they can to keep it as low as possible. They fail to realise that IT is a key enabler to every part of the business. Savvy owners regularly review their investment in IT to ensure they are unlocking its full potential.
For bespoke IT solutions, would you recommend employing the help of a specialist partner, or make an in-house hire? What are the benefits of both options?
All businesses struggle to get what they want in a system. They are often bound by past ways of working - 'things have always been done this way'. And there is very often a huge disconnect between what they say they want and what they actually need. This creates a major headache for a developer - do they give you what want even if it seems crazy?
Whether you choose to outsource to a specialist partner or recruit new resource in-house, the person or team needs to understand your business inside out.
I believe somebody who understands the day-to-day activity of the business and can translate these requirements into functional requirements, is in the best position to translate what a business thinks it wants into what it really needs.
Which IT changes and developments do you believe have had the greatest impact on UK businesses over the past decade?
Cloud computing. As an individual, you can now spin up virtual systems with enormous computing power for a relatively low cost.
The SaaS (software as a service) subscription model has also been radical. Over the past decade, things have moved on from buying the latest version of piece of software to install on one or more devices. On-demand software is centrally hosted and regularly updated, meaning you are not restricted by the functionality at the time of purchase. This keeps everyone constantly moving forward.
Are there any IT functions and solutions that you believe are under-utilised in UK businesses? How could these systems help UK businesses streamline operations and improve output?
The biggest under-utilisation for most businesses comes from not realising the potential of your current investment. Unlocking the capacity within your existing hardware and software will release capacity back into the business.
Second to this, I would say is the failure to make available the data that exists within the system. Without accurate information being readily available, informed decisions remain elusive.
For more insights and knowledge on bolstering your IT endeavours, we’ve listed several related Business Basics issues below:
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- How small businesses can get the most from social media
- Considerations for companies starting to sell online
And there’s more where that came from – head to the Gazprom Energy newsfeed to access our complete collection of Business Basics Q&As, as well as other helpful guides and features.
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