Sunday, April 13, 2014

IT Governance For Small Businesses - Constraints

There is a perception that IT Governance best suits for large organizations and small organizations tend to ignore it considering the efforts and resources that is required in practicing the IT Governance within. But IT Governance is equally important for smaller organizations as well, so that the IT function however small it is deliver maximum value for the business and at the same time to keep the risk exposure to the minimum. Existing frameworks like COBIT are too extensive for small businesses to use in implementing IT governance. These frameworks however are too complex and costly to implement and small businesses may consider it a bigger battle to implement and manage such framework.

ISACA however recommends to take an evolutive approach and thus take smaller steps first and let it evolve. Small businesses should convert the high-level concept of governance into practical and easy to implement best practices. The resource pools available with the small businesses will be a lot smaller and even outsourcing might prove expensive, considering the business volume and thus establishing an RoI on implementing IT Governance could be a bigger challenge.

It is not just the resources and cost, there are certain other characteristics of small businesses, which come in way of implementing an IT Governance. Here are some such characteristics, which an IT Governance framework designed for a small business should take into consideration.

Smaller or no Board of Directors

Many small businesses are closely held and thus could be a family business or private limited company with a small number of Directors on the Board. Having an Independent Director or a Director with IT background on the board is a big ask. This will leave the concentration of IT decision making with few or even single individual, which could be the CEO or the owner himself. IT savvy business owners or CEOs tend to use or leverage IT more for their business and thus have some degree of adoption of standards, practices and frameworks. In such cases, the choice of technology, standards, practices, etc are most likely limited to the knowledge levels of the owner or CEO and they don't take a leap forward into unfamiliar areas, which will call for more resources in evaluating and establishing the RoI for the same.

Organization Structure

One of the first step in implementing the IT Governance in an organization is to get an IT Strategy Committee and an IT Steering Committee with representation from different functions and from the Board. Small businesses do not have the extensive management structures to have such committee(s). The organization structure with small business are not as extensive as that of large organizations and as such enforcing separation of duties may not be feasible at all. For instance, the Finance Manager of a small business will also perform the function of IT procurement with minimal support from IT Administrators. Similarly, having a separate CIO could be a bigger ask for a small businesses as the costs for having such resources does not warrant the return.

Smaller IT departments

Having a fully functional IT department is a big investment for a small business. Thanks to the cloud trend and software as a service, this is a challenge even the IT departments in large organizations are facing. Cloud based services like Google Apps for business and Microsoft's Office 365, coupled with various specific purpose software as a service, it is becoming a lot easier for the businesses to get its IT up and running with least help from IT experts. This characteristic of a small business leads to a situation where a non-IT staff might have to take up the IT Governance initiative, which obviously has a challenge within as such staff might not comprehend the nuances of the Governance practices and jargon.

Lack of complementing frameworks

IT Governance  framework generally relies on various other practices or frameworks practiced in an organization. For instance ITIL, Enterprise Risk Management, ISO, CMMI, etc are some such standards or frameworks, the existence of which makes adoption of an IT Governance framework a bit seamless. In a small business existence of such standards is highly unlikely. Small businesses need an IT governance framework that is simpler, self containing and easier to implement, and only contain controls that are not dependent on a control practice of a different standard or practice.

Information security

While small business are not the target of hackers or attackers, the risk of information security always remained. For obvious reasons that arise out of the characteristics listed here, small businesses could not see the return on investment in information security. For that matter, small business do not have a formal risk management practice. They, typically, do not possess some of the basic elements of security management like information security policies, backup and disaster recovery, security awareness and up-to-date anti-virus protection. An IT governance framework aimed at small businesses will have to include a strong emphasis on information security and address the common security risks affecting small businesses.

Resources & Tools

Use of sophisticated software applications make implementation and practicing IT Governance easier, but it calls for heavy investment, which is beyond the reach for small businesses. For instance, Performance Evaluation of various IT resources call for collection of data and come up with various metrics that can be used to benchmark and as well measure the performance of IT resources and functions. This is made easier by using automated tools and depending on manual methods could prove cumbersome and data inaccuracy.
Because of the lack of financial and technical resources, small businesses cannot make use of such automated tools or software systems for the purpose.

Though the above list is not exhaustive, what are listed above are the ones that can be considered as key constraints for an IT Governance framework for the small business to address. There is no one solution fits all even for large organizations. The IT Governance framework has to be designed, created and managed as relevant for each organization. That includes even a small business. While one may pick and choose controls from various frameworks and tailor them to suit the specific small or medium business. The framework should however provide for evolution, so that the same can improve based on feedback from the practice.

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