[Update 20 June 2013: I’ve just re-read this post prior to writing an article for ZDNet Australia arguing that politicians, too, can no longer use this excuse. My suggested list of required literacy is clearly out of date. What should it now include? Update 21 June 2013: And here’s the article, Ignorant Oz politicians prevent meaningful metadata debate.]
If you own or manage a business that handles information (and which business doesn’t?) then you must understand computers and the Internet. If you don’t, you’re incompetent. Yes, that’s right, you heard me. Incompetent.
There, I’ve said it. Now, with that out of the way, let me explain…
I don’t mean you need to know how computers work, or how to set them up, program them, maintain them or fix them when they break. You don’t need to know how to connect a computer to the Internet, build a website or any of that stuff either.
However you should know enough to make effective decisions about how they’re used in your business. You should know how the leaders in your industry are using the technology. You should be aware of developments that might affect your plans.
In short, you don’t need to know the technology itself, but you do need to know its implications for your business.
Australia’s had a Goods and Services Tax since 2000. If you waved your hand and said, “Oh, I don’t understand GST,” your shareholders would have every right to sack you for incompetence.
Sure, your accountant handles the details. But at the very least you know that the GST is 10%, and you can handle basic business operations like quoting for a customer’s work.
Well, we’ve had the Internet commercially since 1995, and computers for much longer. They’re a core part of doing business. Waving your hand and saying, “Oh, I don’t understand computers” should equally be a sacking offence.
So what do you need to understand…?
Geeks usually get this wrong, and berate “stupid users” for not knowing how the technology works. No.
A typical small businessperson no more needs to know how computers work than Sir Richard Branson needs to be a rocket scientist to run Virgin Galactic. But he does need to know what’s happening in rocketry.
Most businesses are not IT businesses. Most businesses do something else. They make and sell shoes, plan and execute wedding parties, import stuff and sell it to retailers, sell real estate, make pizzas in 10 different stores and deliver them all over a city, drill holes in people’s teeth and fill them again…
Here’s my first-draft list of some of what a non-IT business should know:
- Know the difference between a server, a workstation, a router and a firewall. That’s like knowing the difference between a car, a truck, a tractor and a trench digger.
- Know the structure of the industry, and who’s responsible for what. You should know that the person who sold you the hardware is only responsible for the hardware not the software; know whether your software vendor is responsible for training or support or not; the difference between your Internet service provider (ISP), hosting provider, domain registrar, web developer and so on.
- Know the expected lifespan of your hardware and software, and the expected replacement or upgrade costs — and be planning for it. Knowing that a computer will last X years and that your operating system will be declared obsolete in Y years is like knowing that your truck will last 10 years with good maintenance and will cost $250k to replace.
- Know the likelihood of various things going wrong, and the rough cost and timeframe for fixing them. Do you rely on the information kept on your server? What happens if that server dies? How long will it take to fix? How will you cope in the meantime?
- Know current market prices, so you know if you’ve got a good deal. Taking just one example, you should know how much you’re paying for your Internet connection, what percentage of the capacity you’re using, how fast your usage is growing, how long the contract runs — and how that compares with competing plans.
That’s just a start. I suspect the list should be longer. Any suggestions?
Unless you’re a really tiny business you don’t need to know all this personally. However if you’re too small to need a full-time IT manager then someone in your businesses still needs to be across this. Whoever makes the decisions needs to be making informed decisions — otherwise they’re failing in their duty to the shareholders.
Apart from that management-level knowledge, every computer user — you and all of your staff — should know what to do when things go wrong.
If your car’s fuel gauge warns that you’re running on empty, you know to find a service station and fill up the fuel tank. You know roughly how much that’ll cost. On the other hand, if the oil temperature light keeps coming on, or you hear a weird grinding noise, you know it’s time to see a mechanic — an expert. You don’t fiddle with random controls hoping to fix it.
Similarly, you should be able to handle day-to-day computer issues. When an error message says that you’re out of storage space, you should be able to tell whether it’s your local computer’s hard drive that’s full, or your server, or your email mailbox or whatever. You should also know when that error message is serious enough to call in that expert.
To discuss your car with a mechanic, you need a common language: brakes, steering wheel, gear lever, radiator, tyres. Similarly, you should know the basic parts of your computer, both hardware (monitor, hard drive etc) and software (web browser, word processor, dialog box, menu bar etc).
You should also know about the security risks you face online, and how to operate safely and securely.
There may once have been a time when you could get away with “Oh, I don’t understand computers.” That time has long since gone.
If you and your staff don’t know this stuff, then it’s your job as manager to make sure they do.
Finally, IT and the Internet changes fast. I know personally that technical solutions I might have recommended only two years ago are now inappropriate. But most non-IT businesses aren’t used to this pace of change, and their knowledge is often out of date. To cope with the faster pace, they need to change the way they operate.
Most importantly, businesses need to adopt a process of continual review and improvement.
OK… where’d all this come from?
Over the years I’ve had various Prussia.Net clients say “I don’t understand computers” as if it’s OK to be ignorant of that aspect of their business. But imagine if someone said “Oh, I don’t understand money,” or “I don’t understand insurance.” You’d wonder why they’re allowed to keep running that business!
I don’t want to brow-beat anyone, but I do want to stress that it’s something no business can ignore.
A business can certainly decide, for example, that they don’t need a computer-based customer relationship management system. But they should know what a CRM system does, at least, and whether it’s the right choice for them.
This is very much a first draft. Comments are more than welcome. My focus is on the smaller end of the small business market — 10 computer-using staff or less — where these issues are often ignored.