Role of IT department in a small/medium-sized business

Posted on 2010-01-07
Last Modified: 2012-06-27
Hi all,

I have a general question, and would appreciate feedback from people who have experience in this field.

I work for a company that has approx 100 staff, about 35-40 of whom use a computer in work (I mention this to give some idea of the IT department's workload).  Approx 60% of the company's business comes through our own websites (we operate and maintain about 10 ecommerce sites at present), either directly online or from people calling us after visiting our sites.  The remainder of our business comes through third party websites.

The IT 'department' consists of me and another guy.  Together we build and maintain all of the websites (except the initial front-end design).  All of the programming is done by us.  We are also responsible for pretty much everything that's plugged in.  If a fax/printer/PC/laptop/mobile phone/server/phone system/network/VPN/database/website/standard Windows program/Windows/etc breaks, it's up to us to fix it.  About the only thing we don't look after are the desk fans. We can usually do this ourselves, rarely do we call anyone in to help.

Some of our staff use various software packages (non-standard, but industry-specific).  These are generally very large, expensive packages, with oodles of functions and options, and which would require extensive training, followed by daily use, to get a good grip on.  Indeed, some of the software would probably require a good knowledge of the subject to be well versed in its use (for example, our accounts software - I don't know the first thing about accounts, so I would probably never be much good at using the software, as I don't know/understand the fundamentals behind it).

As it stands, the IT dept keeps these systems running, but ultimately, we don't know much about them at all.  They were installed by the manufacturers, and it's been our job since to ensure that they are kept running and available to the users.  Beyond this, however, our knowledge of these systems is lacking, from bottom to top really.  We don't know how the databases are structured, we don't know when someone asks a question if it's possible or not, as we're not experts at these systems.  AFAIK, these systems are black boxes, I don't know if their architecture is published or not.  My boss argues that the IT dept should be the go-to people for these systems, and all IT systems we use, that we should know the fine details of the systems, ultimately, that we should be the experts in these systems in the company.  He says we're the ones who should be exploiting the data that these systems contain - I agree with him on that point. But he doesn't expect any other department to come up with ideas how to use this data, which I think is a major let-off-the-hook for every other dept. He says we should know what data exists (though it's generated by other users), and how we should exploit it.  He says the IT dept is the brains of the company, and, that essentially, we can't expect the mouth-breathers in the rest of the company to come up with good uses of the company's data. I think he's expecting too much of us, and too little of everyone else.

On to my question, finally.  Generally speaking, are the IT depts of small/medium-sized businesses the experts of ALL the software systems that the company uses?  Are they the go-to guys that should know the nuts and bolts of every system in use, even those that would require good knowledge of the subject matter to even use the systems in the first place?  Should the IT dept be the font of knowledge in the company?  It seems to me that it's too much of an ask (*certainly* for a 2-man IT dept) to be the masters of every system in use.  Admittedly, I'd prefer to know a lot more about these systems, from a comfort perspective, but in reality, there are 100 more pressing needs in the company. And without using these systems every day - for example, the accounts software, how can we ever really be their masters?

Is this our responsibility?  Do we need more staff so we can become experts on these arcane systems?  Or should our responsibility be solely to ensure availability of these systems, but not knowing much more about these black boxes?  What's your opinion on this?  I'd really appreciate if anyone could shed some light on this, as I've been with this company for almost 7 years, and for 5 of those years I was the only one in the IT dept, so I don't have much experience in other companies (I'd only worked for 2 other companies before this one, and in quite junior roles).

If there's a better place to ask this (another forum, for example), please point me in the right direction.

Thanks for your time,

Question by:paulc2000
    LVL 26

    Accepted Solution

    I feel for you.  Our IT department either knows the software or knows how to find out - we have good relations with the vendors.  I agree in many ways with your boss.  The IT people are the masters of the data no matter who generated it and should have a better understanding of the best ways to use said data.  That being said, if you need training to understand the s/w then your company should provide it.  Whether the training is provided through the vendor of the software or a training company like elementk is up to both the company and you and the type of s/w.

    In essence I'm a one man IT sub-dept (the main ITS dept takes care of our college wide network) supporting 140 research labs at a major clinical cancer center.  I'm also responsible for just about everything plugged into the wall ("Tom do you know how to change the copier toner?").  Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you look at it, we have an in-house training solution that I've taken advantage of a number of times.

    Even our helpdesk for our university has been cut down to 4 people supporting ~10,000 users - there is a huge backlog.

    I am on the IT steering committee for the college and one of the issues we are addressing is the responsibilities of departmental support personnel.  We have decided that a realistic delineation of responsibilities is the only way to go.  If specific departments feel they want to add to our base list - that's fine - as long as there is general agreement along the way.

    You'd be surprised how much your boss might back down if you made some of these suggestions (especially the training one - it's a win/win suggestion - either cough up for training or don't expect us to be experts).  Also the delineation of responsibilities gives everyone pause.
    LVL 14

    Assisted Solution

    In a word, No.  A few thoughts:

    1. Being in IT doesn't mean you know everything.  Period.  End of discussion.  You can be the go-to-person, though expecting you to know everything there is to know about all technology in your company isn't feasible.  Granted, with a smaller company this isn't completely out of the question, though as the company grows and more technologies are introduced, you will see a fracturing (specialization) of who deals with what.

    2. Utilize your vendors.  Maintain support contracts.  You don't have to know everything if you have a good vendor to lean on.  We maintain support contracts for just that very reason.  We don't have the time or knowledge to be experts with everything.  Let the guys who work with that stuff 24/7 be the experts.

    3. IT should under no circumstances drive the company.  That's why you have executives and management.  They are responsible for policies and creating direction.  IT is simply responsible for the finer elements of those policies in regards to technology matters only.  Yeah, your CIO or such will get involved in merging IT with the Business, though that should still be done in conjunction with leaders from your other business units.  

    4. Applications are tools.  Nothing more.  As an IT guy I can install Quickbooks.  I can install Excel.  But I can't tell you all that much about them when it comes to actually using them.  Sure, I can add two cells together in Excel, but I don't know how to process payroll in Quickbooks.  I don't know how to check in patients with our practice management software.  My job is to make sure the tool remains available to those who need to use them.

    5. The more spread out you are, the less you'll get done.  You *might* be able to keep up with fires, though you'll never have the opportunity to get ahead.  Routine maintenance, backups, testing, etc will all suffer.  And sooner or later you will get burnt out leading to you being less effective or just up and quitting.

    6. You may or may not need more people.  If you feel you do then you'll need to come up with metrics to support that conclusion.  Management generally doesn't respond well to qualitative analysis.   They like hard numbers, so maybe draw some information from your ticketing system if you use one.  If you don't, then start.

    Author Comment

    Many thanks for your valuable opinions, guys.

    If I could clarify my point above - I didn't mean to say that the IT dept drives the strategy for the company when I said my boss believes we're the brains of the outfit. Perhaps, as alluded to above, we're in need of a CIO.  I hold a quite senior position in the company (though I'm still sometimes involved in lower-end work), so perhaps my own role should evolve into CIO, rather than head of IT.  But that would probably mean taking on someone else on to fill in the gap left by me.

    It's a tricky one...

    Back to the point at hand - though you each have somewhat different points of view, I think you agree that the IT dept should be the go-to people, whether that's the final link in the chain or not.  And the point about delineation as an organisation grows is well made.

    Thanks for your opinions on this guys.
    LVL 14

    Expert Comment

    My pleasure.  When I first started at my current job there were around 200 users and 2.5 IT people.  Now we're 450 users and 10 IT people.  Whereas we previously didn't really *need* a CIO, now we do (and we have one).  And that role is still evolving.  Currently my boss isn't a true CIO as she probably spends half her time doing support for one of our applications leaving her very little time to lead the department and make those valuable business/IT connections.  But we're evolving.  We're getting there.

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