In recent decades, information technology (IT) has made a huge impact on the world of business. Almost every company now uses some form of IT system to perform a range of functions.
At its most simple, an IT system offers you the capability to create letters, manage your accounts, communicate with suppliers and customers and connect with the outside world via email and the internet. More sophisticated uses include managing customer databases, designing products and controlling stock.
Every business will have different IT requirements. The key to successfully investing in a system is being clear about what you want it to achieve for your business, now and in the near future. Once these elements are clear, armed with a little basic knowledge about computers, you can move with confidence towards buying your IT system.
Keeping your system secure protects your business interests. You can also get valuable peace of mind by finding the right technical support and maintenance deals.
Those new to computers need not worry, either. Most commonly available IT hardware and software is remarkably easy to use. However, there are a range of options open to those who need training.
There are many aspects of your day-to-day business that can be managed with an IT system. The most common include:
As you will be making an investment in an IT system, it makes sense to get as much benefit from it as possible.
It is a good idea to think ahead so you can easily add to your system, rather than having to start again when your business develops.
Remember that you don't have to be exact with these requirements - but they are worth bearing in mind from the start.
This will form the basis for your specification and budgeting.
Ideally you should have:
If you are going to be out on the road a lot and need access to your data, you might need to consider buying a tablet or laptop computer.
Whatever PC you buy, you will need software to enable to it do what you want it to do.
There are thousands of software packages available - each designed to carry out a specific task. Spend some time assessing the best software option for your business to make your IT system as efficient as possible.
Word of mouth is often the best way to find the right software. Ask your customers and suppliers - they will be able to give you an honest assessment of the software they use. It is also important that you will be able to communicate with their systems.
Check with your accountant for accounting software. Accountants usually deal with a variety of programs and can make recommendations.
Most PCs come with software pre-installed on a trial basis. If your needs are not complex, this might be sufficient for you.
Most computers use Microsoft's Windows operating system. But check if your industry uses other platforms (such as Apple or Linux) to make sure you will be compatible.
If yours is the only business using a particular piece of software, it is likely that you will find it difficult to share your data with customers or suppliers.
Most businesses will need more than just a PC and a monitor. Common additional requirements include:
Each business will have its own requirements, but a back-up method is essential to safeguard your business data (see section 8.1).
There are many ways that the components of your IT system can communicate with each other.
When specifying your computer and add-ons, make sure they have the same kind of connections.
USB is standard for keyboards, mice, scanners and low-end printers.
Ethernet is usually used to connect computers and printers shared by many users.
Also consider wireless connections. These will add to the cost, because you will probably require extra equipment such as wireless adaptors and a router. Newer laptop computers tend to come with built-in wireless adaptors as standard, although it is rare for desktop PCs.
You will probably need a server if most or all of your employees use a computer. A server is a central computer that stores all of your data in one place.
Dedicated servers typically cost from £500 upwards, depending on your data processing power and storage requirements.
If your needs are simple - such as a system that can handle basic accounts, occasional letters and managing a small database - set aside between £500 and £1,000 for a low-end PC, monitor and scanner/printer.
A more powerful system - for example, to handle web and print design or a large database - will cost from £500 upwards.
If you are in a field that processes complex data - such as computer-aided design, data analysis or scientific research - you will need as powerful a system as possible. Set aside at least £1,300 for a PC and monitor, or £1,750 for a Mac.
It is likely that you will need to buy additional software, unless your needs are very basic.
Most 'off-the-shelf' PCs include word processing and spreadsheet software installed on a trial basis. You might also be able to buy packages that include basic accountancy functions.
If you need to print large volumes, budget for a laser printer. These cost between £80 and £200 for a smallers printer for light use, and up to £1,000-£1,500 for a heavy-duty unit.
If you need to print occasionally, an inkjet printer will handle small amounts. These cost between £50 and £300.
Before you start the buying process it is a good idea to have your requirements and what you are prepared to spend presented together
If you want your system to be portable, bear in mind it will probably cost around 30% more than an equivalent system that stays in your place of work.
The IT retail market is very competitive, so it pays to explore all of your options.
Check IT websites for reviews and buying advice. Trade publications will often review specialist hardware and software for your sector.
Ask around - your suppliers' and customers' experience could be useful.
Make sure that the systems that you are looking at can handle all of your requirements and that they are within your budget.
If you are not comfortable buying IT, do not be afraid to ask potential suppliers as many questions as necessary. While the supplier will want to make a sale, it should also be in their interests to help you buy the best system for your business. They will be used to dealing with people who are not particularly technically minded.
Ask for a demonstration, so you can see the system in action before you buy.
Stay focused on what you want to use your system for. There is little benefit in your buying a top-of-the-range PC that can process billions of calculations per second if you are only going to use it for writing letters.
There is a variety of connection types used by IT equipment, so make sure all the elements you are going to buy can be easily connected to each other (see section 4).
Online IT retailers can often offer lower prices in return for lower levels of customer service. If you know what you want and what you are doing, you can make significant savings.
Check the level of post-sale support the supplier is prepared to offer you in case you run into difficulty.
To use email and access the internet, get a broadband web connection.
Broadband is at least ten times faster than a 'dial-up' connection.
A cable connection is very fast and reliable, but is not available in all areas. Check with your broadband supplier.
If your system fails, is damaged or stolen, it can have disastrous effects on your business.
Make sure you have some way of backing up all your data and storing it safely.
Get into a regular back-up routine - daily or weekly is best, depending on how critical the data is to your business.
You may want to consider buying software that can make back-ups automatically.
Viruses can be transferred from computer to computer without your knowledge. They can damage your data irreparably or steal sensitive data such as passwords and security details without your knowledge.
Anti-virus software is cheap and can monitor your system in the background, stopping a virus before it can cause any harm.
There is a variety of anti-virus software and much of it is inexpensive or available free via the internet.
There are many malicious people and programs that use the internet to gain access to other people's systems.
Make sure your premises are secure.
You can buy security equipment to make it more difficult for your hardware to be stolen.
Security marking your equipment can also act as a deterrent.
Your IT system will only be as effective as the person who operates it.
Many software manufacturers organise training courses on using their software. Some are free, while you will have to pay for others.
Often these can be expensive, but the cost can be more than recouped through the greater efficiency that results.
Consider general computer training run by local authorities and government agencies. This training is usually basic, but it can provide a cost-effective introduction. Increasingly, specialist courses are offered too.
If your budget is tight and you are reasonably proficient, you could teach yourself. Many commercial publishers offer self-teaching books and manuals. Software manufacturers often provide training resources for a fee. Distance learning courses are also available.
Make sure the books or courses you choose address your needs.
Unless you are technically confident, it may make more sense to invest in professional training for yourself and any employees who need it.
Many IT suppliers offer technical support and maintenance contracts when you buy equipment from them.
This will often be a more costly option, but you can develop a long-term relationship with a support specialist.