Information is the lifeblood of any business.

There are widely varying opinions about the best methods of managing and leveraging information into business growth. This monthly column will explore the thought processes needed to make the correct decisions, regardless of the size of your business.

There are as many opinions about IT approaches as there are experts out there. My best advice is to form your own judgments. Begin by assembling a clear understanding of your IT needs. Poll management and users for important considerations, such as the critical functions needed, maintenance, upcoming projects and wish lists. You should also consider strategies for future growth and needs. Once your immediate and longer-term needs are clear, start researching. IT resources are readily accessible and can greatly help in making technology decisions. If you have a trusted vendor, they can often provide good advice. Keep in mind that it's usually best to stick to brand names for both hardware and software. You get what you pay for in terms of quality, stability and customer support.

Most distributor-sized businesses combine IT management with other responsibilities. Regardless of how you structure your IT management function, it's best to have someone in charge of the overall plan for the entire company.

Now, let's consider the issue of when to invest in a maintenance agreement. As a company grows and its IT needs - and reliance - increases, it becomes more difficult to operate when an IT system fails. It's important to recognize the limitations of your internal capabilities and weigh those limitations against the consequences of an extended downtime or catastrophic loss of data.

Finally, let's discuss the issue of standardization: While standardization of software and platforms is usually a no-brainer, centering your IT structure on a single generation of hardware can lead to “rubber-band” growth in your access to state-of-the-art technologies. For example, consider a state-of-the-art hardware advancement that will most likely have a lifespan of three years. If you standardize your entire system around it, you may be locked into an “old” technology six months later, when someone advances the state-of-the-art even further. So, staggering your buying of advancements - particularly hardware - allows you to stay more current with new developments. And, you should consider implementing new hardware in the areas of the business that need them most, such as accounting and sales.

Sidebar: Best Practices

Each month, we'll provide proven Best Practices. Readers are encouraged to send along any successful IT management approaches they may be using. We will feature the best of them in upcoming columns.

1. Educate yourself.

Knowledge is definitely power, as it relates to information technology. The more you know, the more effective you will be at selection of software and hardware components, as well as managing the growth and effectiveness of your overall IT systems. The Internet is an excellent source of IT information, as are the many available IT self-help books and local adult-education courses. And, ask questions of suppliers and other people in the know. As you learn, formulate a plan for information management today and a strategic vision of where you want your IT systems to be in the future.

2. Use multiple vendors for IT products and services.

There are many alternative products, services and providers available for your consideration. In fact, that is one of the most confusing and exciting aspects of information technology. Using multiple vendors allows you to keep everyone honest, with respect to costs. But, equally important, it provides an opportunity for you to obtain different perspectives and input about the best course of action for your particular situation. So, multiple vendors are a check and balance, as well as a great source of opposing points of view. <<