Why don’t more small businesses invest in information systems?


Are the businesses around us as effective as they could be at using technology to improve how they do things – from serving customers to keeping costs low?

As we move into an increasingly digitized economy, what kinds of organisations are likely to take advantage of the new opportunities that emerge?

A paper from 1999 by James Y.L Thong may still have useful lessons for us nearly twenty years later.

The core systems that businesses require are more or less understood. Almost every business is probably going to have email, some kind of office software and a website.

But what happens after that… what about customer relationship management (CRM) systems, specialist analytics tools, marketing software and so on?

Thong’s paper argues that there are three key characteristics shown by businesses that adopt information systems (IS).

First, CEO’s matter a lot.

CEO’s that are innovative and open to trying new things are much more likely to put their weight behind an IS initiative than more conservative ones.

The amount of control held by CEOs over decisions in small firms means their approach is critical in making something happen or not.

In addition, their approach will also be influenced by how much they personally know and understand the technology being considered.

Someone who is unfamiliar with computers and suspicious of technology may be unwilling to engage and understand what is possible with modern systems.

This is not an age related thing – many older CEOs and Chairman have reached their positions by being ahead of the technology curve at every stage of their careers.

It’s an attitude thing instead.

Second – the innovation matters

People will only think about adopting something new when the benefits of doing so are clear.

We tend to use at least three rules of thumb to evaluate technological options.

  1. Is it better than what we have now – does it have relative advantage?
  2. Is it compatible with how we work now?
  3. Is it easy to use – or at least no more complex than how we do things now.

If an innovation passes these three tests, then there is a good chance we’ll consider it further.

The main thing is whether the organisation is at the right point in its lifecycle

An organisation that is too small is struggling to survive. It probably has owner managers and generalist staff.

The in-house technical people needed to properly evaluate and implement a new information system simply aren’t there.

In larger organisations with more defined roles it’s more likely there are a few people with the capability to take on the necessary jobs.

Larger businesses may also have more money to hire outside help with specialist skills.

The main difference between 1999 and now is the amount of capability aware as a service – the software as a service or SAAS model.

Email, documents, file storage, file sharing, email marketing, website design – all the capabilities that would have taken teams of people to create are now available over the internet with simple interfaces most people can use quickly.

The challenging area now is selecting and using specialist software that helps businesses do unique work.

Things haven’t changed over the decades. It’s not really about software.

It’s always about the business and the people in it.

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