I was driving home from the office the other day and felt the urge to blast some tunes. Without even looking, I hit the power button on the radio, hit the scan button several times, and adjusted the volume just loud enough to blast away all thoughts of the TPS reports and stapler requisition forms due the next day. If you think about it, a car radio is a perfect example of “transparent technology.” They are all designed to fit the car’s environment, the controls are easy to use, and they work without having to put much thought into it…the radio is a part of the car rather than its own special-needs device. All technology should work this same way. Its whole purpose is to make lives easier and more efficient, not complicated and expensive. Many tech-curmudgeons will say “All modern technology is complicated!”, and that’s a true statement. The trick is to make sure you’re using appropriate technology.
Everyone can not be an expert at everything. People specialize and excel in certain areas, then use specialists in other areas to support their endeavors. This is why you don’t see many lawyer-doctor-physicist-programmers out there. However, when people are setting up a small business, they are often shoved into this situation. Accountants have to decide on what type of computer to use. Mechanics have to decide what email system they’re going to implement. Plumbers have to decide how to build a website. They do some research on the products they need, then usually settle on whichever product vendor spent the most on advertising.
Businesses rely on efficiency, especially small businesses. Making a wrong or inappropriate choice in the beginning can set the business down a slippery and expensive slope. I like to teach by example, so here’s an example of a typical scenario I see constantly:
Dave runs an engineering firm and has 13 employees. He needs an email solution, so he looks online and sees a lot of people are talking about Microsoft Exchange. He decides to use Exchange for his email platform. Dave hires a consultant, purchases a server, backup equipment, a dedicated high-speed Internet connection for the server, a domain name, and Outlook licenses for everyone in the office. After spending several thousand dollars on the initial setup, Dave is also required to maintain the mail backup system, install his own security updates, pay a service tech $100/hr every other month to fix a server problem, and tends to lose email every time his Internet connection goes down.
The above scenario is very common, and a shining example of non-transparent technology. The setup Dave went for is more suited for a 500 person office, not 13. All of the references found during the initial research of Exchange were mainly technical support questions…people in his same situation asking for help. There is no redundancy built-in, so Dave has to worry about backing up the server and keeping everything running.
Doesn’t leave much time for his actual job, does it?
As I said, all modern technology is complicated, but it also has two facets: usability and support. These two sides need to be weighed. If you put a lot of weight on the support side, you’ll have much more functionality on the usability side. If you put less weight on support, you’ll have less usability. This is why the concept of managed services has been taking off with small business owners as of late.
Having a service provider manage your systems gives the best of both worlds: All the back-end support is handled automatically on a low-cost subscription model, while maintaining a high usability level for workers. Email, virus protection, backups, and even workstation upkeep are all be handled automatically, giving you a “virtual IT department”. This gives your business tools the same transparency as your car radio — you just turn it on and it works. No hardware to support, no expensive service calls, and since you can turn services on and off as needed, no money is wasted to keep extra capacity on-hand.
I’ll now retell Dave’s saga using a managed service model and see how it turns out:
Dave runs an engineering firm and has 13 employees. He needs an email solution, so he looks online and sees a lot of people are talking about Google Apps for Business. He decides to use Google Apps as his email platform. Dave calls a Managed Service Provider, and purchases 13 Google Apps accounts at $48/per user/year. The provider registers a domain for Dave, and hosts a website for him for $9.95/month. The technical work is finished on the Provider’s end in a couple of days, and all the employees have to do is log into the service. If additional features are needed, such as monitored anti-virus or file backups, services can be added instantly. No hardware to install, no technician visits needed.
You can see the difference. Dave and his employees are now able to use the tools they need without having to worry about the technical end of things…they just work.
Transparency is the key to technology. If you aren’t “aware” it’s there, then it’s doing it’s job properly. If you have to constantly babysit, adjust, or maintain your technology, it probably isn’t the right solution.
I’m curious to hear what types of systems everyone is using and what they think of them. Comment away!