Ivan Durkin considers what IT lessons wholesalers can learn from Dhamecha and others
If you’ve not been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably heard of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which Forbes named one of the top 10 most influential management books of all time.
It lists proactivity as its first ‘habit’ – in other words, the most important behaviour to adopt if you want to be effective and successful.
The savvier and more successful among you won’t be surprised. You will already be running your businesses – and lives – proactively.
You’ll be servicing your personal car and delivery fleet alike to pre-empt any brewing issues. You may have set up banking or accounting alerts to warn you of impending cash-flow bottlenecks, and you’ll have systems in place to catch supplier price changes so you can respond profitably.
Perhaps you also attend regular dental and medical checks, and you’ll undoubtedly have insurance to buffer against an array of potential disasters.
Be proactive What’s your IT management habit?
So it continually astounds me when I speak to even large wholesalers about how they manage their IT systems, particularly their servers (the ‘engine room’ of many systems). Too often, there’s no proactivity to their process. Worse, there’s usually no official IT house-keeping ‘habit’ at all, so no-one has spotted the early warning alerts or done anything (other than moan) about their system’s reduced performance, screen freezes, software crashes or the fan working overtime.
The first we hear of a problem is usually when a wholesaler has lost data, got a virus, is having difficulty with some programmes, or perhaps has even had trading difficulties with mission-critical elements of its system.
Monitor your systems: Most IT issues are preventable
However, when we investigate, we typically find causes that would have been preventable with a habit of proactive system monitoring.
For example, commonly we find the wholesaler has run out of disk space, which means its system no longer has the capacity to perform tasks efficiently. This will have been building up for some time, though, so should not have been a surprise.
Another classic situation is a wholesaler that hasn’t backed up its system regularly. If its server fails, it has difficulty restoring its latest data – whereas if it had backed up daily, this wouldn’t be an issue.
It doesn’t take a qualified technician to perform these tasks: just someone with the knowledge of which button to press or which control panel or light to check.
Some industry leaders will go further, though. Dhamecha Group, for example, employs an external host for its backed-up data. This ensures the company always has a secure set of up-to-date data off-site to enable it to continue operating with minimum disruption should disaster strike in its main system – whether in the form of a fire, server failure or virus attack.
Online peace of mind Back up to the cloud
Some wholesalers are uncomfortable with the concept of letting their data leave their premises but it makes a lot of sense and, with the cost of this kind of service dropping, we believe that backing up into the cloud will become increasingly common.
Not so many years ago most of us were reluctant to part with our credit card details online. Now, not only have we become avid online shoppers, we have added e‑commerce arms to our own businesses.
A bonus of using a remote host to back up your data is that it will be responsible for securing that precious information.
By contrast, when we are asked to resolve internal security issues for wholesalers, we usually discover systems that are running outdated anti-virus software or missing security patches. Without regularly running the latest fixes available, your system is vulnerable to the ever-evolving viruses and hacking techniques that now exist.
Such updates are free, should be automated when the system is set up, and can easily be checked in-house for successful completion.
So there really is no excuse for exposing your system to this potentially major disruption.
Similarly, hardware rarely just ‘breaks’. It usually gives clear forewarning of wear and tear. By heeding these signs, you can order and replace degraded parts often long before system failure threatens your operations.
A stitch in time A few simple routines can stop a lot of problems
Major DIY wholesaler Stax Trade Centres avoids such preventable problems by diligently pursuing a number of quick monitoring, upgrade and back-up activities. Derek Doyle, IT manager at Stax, says: “It’s a case of ‘a stitch in time saves nine.’”
First, you need to write an official monitoring policy. This needn’t be War and Peace: it can be as simple as making some individuals responsible for backing up the system before going home, checking when they first log on in the morning that scheduled overnight system upgrades, security patches and back-ups have completed, and checking that the system still has spare memory and that the disk warning lights aren’t on.
And then – and this is the important bit – you need to instil into your staff the importance of performing these tasks regularly and diligently.
We reckon that if we catch just one failed back-up or security patch a year, we are saving ourselves and our customers a great deal of frustration, time, money and even trading disruption.
Who’s got the time? Outsource monitoring
However, some of you will be asking: “Who’s got the time?” This is where a server monitoring service makes sense. An IT provider can set up early warning signs for your system. By monitoring these, it can advise if your server’s performance is compromised (or about to be) so that swift preventative or remedial action can be taken.
As with anything, the sooner you spot a developing problem, the sooner you can fix it – more cheaply, more quickly, and with less chance of disruption.
Early warnings also give you the opportunity to budget for any more expensive components that might be nearing the end of their lives. In this way, the small service cost is easily justified.
So thread that needle, start learning how to do a basic cross-stitch – and develop the IT habit of highly successful wholesalers.