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4 People Lessons To Smooth SMB Tech Rollouts

SMBs suffering from underperforming technology might do well to apply these four people management principles to their machines and applications.

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Stop me if this sounds familiar: Your company spent a significant chunk of its slender budget on technology X to solve business need Y. Within a matter of weeks--if not days--after initial deployment, users start grumbling: "This thing doesn't work. It's too slow. It's too difficult. It doesn't do what I need it to do. Why does it do this and not that? I don't like it. Can we get something else instead?"

Suddenly, IT is in a bind: Cut your losses? That involves, well, losses. It also involves more spending--an inefficient and potentially profit-killing technology cycle for small and midsize businesses (SMBs). But if users can't do their jobs well, that's not good for the bottom line, either.

Douglas Brown, academic program manager at Post University's MBA program, suggests a strategic shift that might help: Smaller companies would be better served by introducing new technology to their organizations in a similar manner to how they bring on new employees. He points out that there tends to be a period of learning and integration for new people--the process of "onboarding" in corporate-speak--that typically begins during the pre-employment phase and lasts through the first 90 days on the job. Not always so with new technology.

"That 90 days might be nine minutes," Brown said in an interview. "People expect to just flip the switch and technology to just happen."

That could be a critical mistake. Coming up with a comparable onboarding process for technology could deliver a boon for your business, potentially extending lifecycles and reducing spending, maximizing ROI, and enabling more efficient--and more satisfied--end users. File all of the above under: "IT wins."

Brown, who also directs Post University's Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, said he started considering the human approach to tech after moderating a panel at the Connecticut Business Expo on how SMBs can maximize technology investments. The notion of "hiring" tech like people came up among panelists Dave Rubino, managing director of AFG, and Bill Abram, founder and president of Pragmatix, during a discussion on extending tech lifecycles. So how to do it? Consider these four people-oriented principles for your technology approach.

1. Change your organizational mindset. Brown notes that human resources tend to get much more time to learn, adapt, and grow in an organization. "You tend to have a lot more patience with people than you do with your PC," he said. Businesses often expect technology platforms to achieve optimal performance with the wave of a magic wand rather than analogous approach.

"As you're thinking about the problem that you're trying to solve with the technology, be realistic about what it can accomplish, when it can accomplish it, and what level of support it will need to get there," Brown said. "Small business owners recognize when they go to hire someone, that person's not going to know their business on the first day."

2. Write job descriptions. You already write technical requirements; Brown advises writing a separate job description for technology, too. Consider it a complementary piece that helps everyone in the company (i.e., it should be written for a non-technical audience). Think about the who, what, when, why, and how of technology acquisitions beyond the fundamental requirements. To that end, the job description should cover how a piece of tech with work with the people and processes inside an organization and not just how it will integrate with other systems.

"It can't just be about the features of the technology," Brown said, noting that job descriptions, even for highly technical personnel, almost always include some personal characteristics within the context of the organization. "It's that other, softer stuff that speaks to this onboarding process that needs to be there."

3. Expect that people will be resistant to change. A quick one that SMB owners, project managers, and other IT pros will likely understand: Don't just assume that everyone is going to welcome change with open arms. Much like hiring managers consider issues of culture and fit when making people decisions, do the same with tech.

"Try to find ways to get them to buy in so that you don't spend all this time and money and then wonder why they're not getting the productivity benefits," Brown said. "It's [often] because all of the employees made it adapt to what it used to do, what the old thing was."

4. Develop and assess performance. Brown advocates devising a strategy for developing and evaluating technology performance beyond the realm of uptime, bugs, and help desk tickets. Brown lists as example questions: "How is that technology doing against the expectations? Are the expectations current? What do we need to do as an organization to make that technology continue to be effective?"

Brown notes that many SMBs--especially midsize firms--have a management-by-objectives document, or something similar, that lists key success factors and the corresponding measurement benchmarks. "That same discipline ought to be there for tech budgeting," he said. "There needs to be a strategy to have a real power-user inside the organization, but also a regular review process to see how it's doing, just like you do with an employee."

The development and assessment piece is perhaps the best bridge between technology and people--to do it well, Brown said, requires an honest inward look at both the nonhuman and human factors required for the business to run well.

"If you don't have a good process, technology isn't going to fix it--it's just going to do a bad process a lot faster," Brown said. "SMBs are so in the moment, worried about every little thing, that it's sometimes hard to zoom out and look at the big picture and say: What is this really trying to solve, and how does my organization need to adapt to make the most of this?"

Still, with tech as with people, sometimes things just don't work out. Stay tuned for how to manage poor performance and what questions you should ask before pulling the plug altogether.

You can't afford to keep operating without redundancy for critical systems--but business units must prioritize before IT begins implementation. Also in the new, all-digital InformationWeek SMB supplement: Avoid the direct-attached storage trap. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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