IT Staff? What IT Staff?

An oft-repeated supposition when talking about a new software or hardware product is that in-house IT staff can compensate for what the technology lacks. It’s often presumed that somebody on staff can patch, tweak, rejigger or jury-rig technology to make it do what it won’t do “out of the box.” “Any junior programmer can make that work” is a common refrain.

The truth is, nearly one-third of businesses in the United States have no on-site IT staff. It is one of the hallmarks of the PC revolution that ever-cheaper computer technology has spread to businesses that are totally unequipped to mend, fix, improve or otherwise deal with it. What passes for IT in much of corporate America is a poor approximation of the concept — and the implications for the future of computing are dim unless programmers can make ease-of-use a religion.

Tech in the House?

If you’ve had the privilege to visit some of the 5.9 million small and medium businesses that make up 99 percent of all U.S. companies, I don’t need to tell you that a deep dysfunction typifies their use of computers. I do consulting work with small shops on a regular basis, and I’ve been privileged to see how they cope with the info revolution.

The first thing most clients want to know is what the right-click button is for on the mouse. I spent literally half an hour two weeks ago explaining to execs at a design firm that right-click can be used to download pictures from the Web. I would wager that CEOs of some small companies have no idea a standard mouse has two buttons, sometimes three.

In addition, clients have paid me to install software that comes with a simple, easy-to-use installation CD. “We’re not really sure how it all works” is the embarrassed explanation I hear repeatedly from well-educated professionals who are struck dumb by their computers.

At this point, we have not even gotten into the subtleties of creating a three-tier Web application, installing a database back-end to store marketing materials, or implementing a rational billing system.

Lost in the Dark

The fact is, most people using PCs on the job are computer illiterate to one degree or another. They know routines to get themselves through the day, but they don’t know much about how their computer works. If you change the furniture on them, or if something explodes, they’re lost.

Making matters worse, there is often no one to hold users’ hands or put out fires. A study of 750 businesses conducted a year ago by the Yankee Group found that of U.S. businesses with 2 to 19 employees, 30 percent had no IT staff whatsoever, while 48 percent had one person on staff to handle tech issues.

As the Yankee Group’s Helen Chan told me, that single point of contact often is a non-technical person reluctantly conscripted into being the IT pro. “You have a person who wears many hats. She may be the office accountant who deals with the telecom and IT needs,” Chan said. “She may not have expertise that qualifies her, but she took on that role because she had to.”

Better Keep It Simple

In my experience, firms that have just one person on-site may find it extremely difficult to get her attention. After all, I’ve seen Ivy League universities and research institutions staffed with dozens of bright young Unix and PC geeks keeping critical infrastructure running. Even so, if students or professors want to know how to clean a virus from their laptop or fix their e-mail settings, they call their local PC repair guy because the computing center can’t be bothered. Turns out mainframe computing really was a state of mind — and continues to be so.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to bash IT professionals. There are probably too few of them, not too many, and it would be a good thing if more companies had someone there on a daily basis who really knew his or her way around the intricacies of Ethernet, small business Web publishing and, most importantly, how to plug in a USB cable. It would be great if more white-collar business professionals were computer literate and could do these things themselves.

In the interim, I would suggest that software tools need to be kept really simple. The labor required to maintain and troubleshoot most software is the most expensive part of owning PCs, or so I hear. Designers should realize that unless they are selling to General Electric, their target customers may not have any expertise on staff. It’s probably best, then, to focus on bringing ease-of-use and simplicity to every possible corner of software design.

Small and medium businesses are a great market — and probably will be the biggest one in the next several years. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, they will need tools that accommodate scant technical experience, short attention spans and no knowledge whatsoever of the right-click button.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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