To begin with, the Big Four IT vendors have discovered the joys of selling to smaller businesses. They're realizing, as the astute British humorist P. G. Wodehouse (who lived for most of his later years here in the good old U.S. of A.) wrote decades ago, that "every little bit added to what you've got makes just a little bit more"--and that these "little bits" can add up to a nice bit of revenue, thank you. That's why Oracle offers "enterprise-class, flexible and affordable solutions" for midsize companies, SAP asserts that "88,000 customers can't be wrong," IBM has tantalizing "small business solutions for growing companies," and Microsoft has a server for SMBs: the Windows Small Business Server.
But what if, after spending countless hours with the sophisticated sales teams from these big vendors that descend disdainfully on your organization, you begin to suspect that the "We Love Small Businesses" sign is actually planted on the tip (seven-eighths? eight-ninths? nine-tenths?) of an iceberg of complexity and cost. What if landing on that iceberg begins to feel like a Titanic encounter? And if vendor lock-in is indeed inevitable, aren't you better off with a smaller, more agile and malleable vendor?
There's a fairly sizable group of highly vocal proponents of technology democracy that have two words of wisdom for you: open source. Kind of sounds like open sesame and, if managed right, that's not a bad metaphor. Companies from tiny to massive have successfully leveraged open source solutions to get and keep going. They're definitely an option from SMBs.
But even if you have to pay, there are creative ways to build upon small technology vendors' innovation at lower prices than those charged by big vendors. Risk sharing is a good example of this approach.
Small technology vendors have essentially the same problems that you do. By getting into a risk-sharing partnership for, say, advanced customer analytics, your company serves as a guinea pig for the vendor. You supply the raw data and in-house resources, and the vendor provides the software and consulting expertise. Together, you build something that adds significant value to your business at much lower cost than big-vendor alternatives. Your vendor partner, in turn, gets a case study and reference implementation (as well as the learning) to show other customers and prospects.
The technology landscape is exploding--we didn't even talk about SaaS, clouds, and virtualization. SMBs have a plethora of affordable options and a distinct advantage: You can make decisions and innovate without the bureaucratic tangle that ties up your larger competitors. But for that, you'll need to be agile and creative. To adapt from a well-known old nursery rhyme:
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over The software shtick
Here's to a successful 2012.
Rajan Chandras has more than 20 years of experience advising and leading business technology initiatives, with a focus on strategy and information management. Write him at rchandras at gmail dot com.
According to our Outlook 2012 Survey, IT should expect soaring demand but cautious hiring as companies use technology to try to get closer to customers. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek: Inside Windows Server 8. (Free registration required.)