Business IT: the basics

1 Overview
2 Create your first IT system
3 Manage your IT systems on a day-to-day basis
4 Communicate more effectively using IT
5 Systems and data security
6 Help your staff to make the most out of IT
7 Plan your IT systems for the future

1. Overview

Whatever level of IT solutions you use in your business, it's important to get them right and to understand the ways in which technology can make your business more efficient. It's important to choose systems that meet your needs and can grow as your business grows.

2. Create your first IT system

It's important to ensure that the IT solutions you choose meet your needs now and can be adapted and extended in the future. If you haven't built an IT system before, start by assessing your business needs.

The components of an IT system

Your IT system will be made up of hardware and software. Hardware includes PCs laptops, tablet computers, smartphones and servers, network equipment, scanners and printers. The types of hardware you'll need will depend on what benefits you want to get from your IT system.

Your hardware will be more effective if you have the right software for your needs. Decide whether you want an off-the-shelf software solution or a system designed specifically for your needs.

Cloud computing can help you manage data, hardware and software requirements by using resources on the internet. Documents, emails, customer information, business applications and other assets can all be stored online - 'in the cloud'. This makes them accessible from any computer or mobile device with an internet connection and web browser.

You could take advantage of networking to share the cost of peripherals such as printers and provide access to shared data.

Introducing computers to your business

Computerised accountancy systems are very common applications for new or developing businesses. You could also consider using a payroll software system. This could help speed up the process of producing timely, accurate pay calculations and payments.

3. Manage your IT systems on a day-to-day basis

To maintain your own IT systems, you'll need maintenance routines, back-ups and a plan for disaster recovery.

If you haven't got technical expertise, you could consider outsourcing the maintenance of your IT system.

Your systems should be able to communicate with others, both inside and outside your business.

If you have a website or run an e-commerce site, ensure that the content of the site is accurate and updated regularly. This will help promote a positive image for your business, and help you attract and retain visitors to the site.

It's important to make sure that your systems are secure. A small investment in a firewall, anti-virus and other security software could save you significant amounts of money. Otherwise there is a risk of your systems being disrupted - or even crippled - by viruses or hackers.

Security is also important when running an e-commerce site. Any disruption of service caused by hackers or denial-of-service attacks can have serious implications for the success of your site.

4. Communicate more effectively using IT

Effective communication is central to most IT and e-commerce systems. Most of these technologies are developed to make communication between buyers and sellers faster and more reliable.

Improving your internet access

A broadband connectionwill give you faster internet and email accessandcan make your business processes more efficient. Broadband connections are always on soit's usually quick and reliable to transer large files.

Mobile networking technologies

Consider using mobile devises such as smartphones, tablet computers, laptops or netbooks if you or your staff want to work remotely from your office.

Cost-effective marketing

Marketing by email or through the internet offers speed and cost benefits over traditional mail marketing. You can target specific groups or interests more easily - although you must make sure that the messages are focused directly at the recipients. Other types of online marketing such as search engines and social media also provide a cost-effective way of reaching customers.

Collaborating online

Setting up an extranet can allow customers and suppliers access to relevant areas of your IT system. An extranet would allow them to update key information or directly obtain relevant files. An extranet can save time and minimise transport costs for data that your business needs to share.

Supply chain software can help you to collaborate with business partners online, which can reduce your costs and speed up your processes.

5. Systems and data security

It's important to consider the threats posed to your IT system by by hackers and viruses. Risks that are IT-related have become much more important as technology use increases. Risk management is a process that you can use to understand and control risk.

Having identified the risks to your business, you can implement effective information security measures. These help your business to continue to operate effectively and profitably. The BS ISO/IEC 27001 standard has been written to gather together good practice on information security in a form that is useful for businesses of all sizes.

Your IT security policy should take account of the common risks to the information that your business relies upon. This policy might include secure login identification for using IT systems and logical access controls that limit access to information.

Many businesses use wireless local area networks as they are convenient, cheap and easy to install. However, they can also be very insecure unless you take appropriate precautions.

The growth of the internet has brought new opportunities for fraudulent behaviour. Typical scams involve you or your staff giving away important identity information that can allow the fraudsters to use your business' credit for their own purposes. However, with simple precautions and an informed workforce you can avoid most of these problems.

6. Help your staff to make the most out of IT

Your IT system will probably represent one of the most significant investments for your business. If staff are trained to use IT properly, your business will be more productive and the systems will run more smoothly.

As your business becomes more reliant on IT, you will need employees with IT skills and experience. The most widely used IT skills qualification in the UK of this type is the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL).

Internet policies

You should establish acceptable usage policies, and ask staff to sign them to confirm that they've read and understood them.

Operator safety

You need to ensure that your staff can work comfortably and safely when operating computer systems. This can involve good workplace design and sensible working practices.

7. Plan your IT systems for the future

Plan your IT system to allow for change. This can help you bolt on additional functions when you need them. There's little point in investing in a new IT system only to find that when you want to add more hardware or software, it isn't capable of expansion.

Help with planning

In order to plan effectively for your current and future IT needs, you must specify your requirements correctly and acquire the appropriate technology at the outset.

Going online

Before putting your business online, consider all the options and make sure it's as simple as possible to make the move when you decide to. For example, you may at some stage want to create and manage a website to promote your business or have a fully transactional online shop.

Mobile working

If you have staff out on the road or working from home, you may want to consider mobile solutions and the ability to connect to your systems remotely. For example, sales people on the road can instantly check stock levels or people who work from home can access internal documents, making communication more effective

Read our guide Choose and manage your IT supplier.