Small Shop IT: Agile but Frenzied

Bogged often with day-to-day maintenance and limitations on management experience and the amount of overhead it can support, the small or midsize IT shop is a much different workplace from its big technology counterpart, and amid the challenges lie benefi

With a tendency to get bogged down with day-to-day maintenance and having limited management experience as well as a finite amount of overhead they can support, small and midsize IT shops are much different workplaces from their big technology counterparts. But, its not all bad news.

Small and midsize IT shops have advantages that big IT environments do not. According to Forrester Research, their smaller sizes allow them to be closer to their customers, give them the agility to change direction quickly and enable them to more easily track internal activities of their groups.

But, with their quicker reaction times and greater agility comes disadvantages not shared by their hulking counterparts. Smaller IT departments have minimal tolerance for overhead. They are not able to shoulder the burdens of high operating expenses, even those that stand to greatly improve processes.

Compromises are often made in small and midsize IT shops based on the availability of people, which has given them the reputation of being work environments where tech professionals are constantly "firefighting," or jumping from one crisis to the next.

"Small shops dont have a lot of slack. Everyone is so busy firefighting, nobody can take a look at what might happen a couple years down the road. Theyre too busy patching," Marc Cecere, Forrester vice president, told eWEEK.

There are structural and organizational differences in small and midsize IT environments that can have profound effects on the workplace. Forrester found that the CIOs report lower in the workplace food chain as their companys size decreased.

In the largest companies—labeled the Global 300—nearly half (48 percent) of the CIOs reported to the CEO and 9 percent reported to the companys president. In large IT shops, these numbers changed, as significantly fewer CIOs, only one-third (33 percent), reported to the CEO, but the number that reported to the president jumped to 15 percent. This trend continued as the size of the IT shop decreased.

One of the most significant reasons that smaller IT shops are different places to work is that they invest far less in human resources initiatives than large IT enterprises do. Small IT shops were less likely to participate in job fairs (36 versus 61 percent), serve on a curriculum review committee (11 versus 16 percent) or sponsor scholarships for students in IT-related majors (13 versus 23 percent) than their large-shopped counterparts.

Small and midsize IT shops also have happier CEOs. In a December 2006 CEOs survey, Forrester found that while an average 59 percent of CEOs said that they were satisfied with their IT departments, this number jumped to 67 percent among CEOs at smaller companies. Meanwhile, the number of CEOs who responded that they were outright dissatisfied with their companys IT was 14 percent across all company sizes, but as low as six percent in small companies.

Because IT processes get less formal as shop size decreases, they can be less bureaucratic places for employees to work. However, less rigid processes can cause repeated mistakes as well as heightened pressure on the CIO role. In the lower ranks, nearly every worker is expected to be something of an everyman, and its harder to get in without a significant amount of experience.

"Big IT hires more entry-level people because they have these mechanisms for training in place. They tend to put people in more specialized roles. In a 50-person shop, youre probably going to be more of a generalist," Cecere said.


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