Small and medium businesses share several commonalities with bigger organisations, especially as technology closes the gap between SMEs and enterprise systems.

SMEs can now often afford and use enterprise-grade software and increasingly manage similar complexities that grow from business technologies.

Data illustrates this situation. No matter the size of a business, it produces and uses data. Those stockpiles of information create opportunities and challenges that become bigger and more demanding as the business grows. Too often, smaller enterprises are caught unaware when they grow yet don’t accommodate for data.

“It’s easy to ignore your data growth especially if you’re not operating in a data-focused culture,” says Orla Meaker, account manager for business development at Sithabile Technology Services. “You just keep storing data into available storage until the costs start to attract attention, or a big crash results in data loss that impacts continuity. At that point, it will be difficult and expensive to address any data needs. It’s much more prudent to start early and manage your data when the business is still smaller.”


Why data matters

Many SMEs still regard data as a concern for big businesses, yet the more proactive organisations exploit data advantages. Data analytics is a leading example – affordable business intelligence tools empower smaller companies to spot trends in their data, leading to better returns. For example, companies that leverage data analytics successfully gain, on average, 8 percent more revenue and reduce their costs by 10 percent.

Every company also has data responsibilities. It must manage the data fueling its operations: emails, charts, reports, spreadsheets, and more feed information to different functions from sales to stock management. Data compliance is also important, such as maintaining records for tax purposes or ensuring that client and staff information stays secure per laws such as Europe’s GDPR and South Africa’s POPIA.

Then there is data security. A company with a poor handle on its data is a ripe target for cyberattacks such as ransomware. Without a sufficient data storage plan, an attacker can easily cause havoc, stop operations, and cause real damage – nearly two-thirds of SMEs go out of business after a major cyberattack. Weak data storage leads to weak security.

“Most SMEs completely underestimate what data means to their productivity, strategy, and risks. They believe it’s something they can take care of later. But if they ignore a small data issue today, it will only become a much bigger data issue in the future,” says Meaker.


Addressing growing data demands

How should SMEs manage growing data volumes? Many are flocking to cloud storage, which is a good start. Cloud storage is more flexible than storing data on in-house servers and less prone to failure. It’s generally more affordable as companies don’t have to invest heavily up-front for storage hardware.

Yet, the cloud is not a magic solution for data growth, says Meaker, “Using cloud storage can help a lot, but it won’t cover everything and can also incur extra costs. For example, you might want to store some sensitive data on-site, such as machine data for manufacturing. Cloud storage can become very costly if you access it often, because storage companies might charge a fee for accessing the data.”

Cloud storage is one piece of a larger strategy, and prudent SMEs invest early in a data storage strategy that makes sense for their needs. To start developing a data storage plan that will grow with the business, Meaker offers these tips:

  • Catalogue your data: Broadly speaking, a business has two types of data. Hot data is what it currently uses, and cold data is accessed less frequently. Storage for hot data should be fast and accessible, and can cost a bit more. Cold data is accessed less frequently and can use cheaper storage options. It’s critical to separate data into these two groups as they will influence storage types and costs, backup options, and help project future data growth.
  • Choose suitable storage: The cloud can be a good place for affordable data storage. On-premise storage also has advantages, depending on the type of data. There are multiple types of cloud and on-premise storage—which ones you need will depend on the type of data, your operational requirements, and your budget. However, two crucial and universal considerations are growth and access: how fast is your data growing, and how does your staff access data to do their work? These points are essential as they will change as the business grows.
  • Think about backups: Putting data into storage is different from a backup. Backups require a clear plan, prioritised according to your data catalogue and storage. Poorly-organised data backups will make retrieval harder, slower, and more expensive. If you mix regular data with data backups, criminals can access, steal and encrypt all your data – including backups. A good data strategy early in the business can adapt to growth, whereas designing one later becomes much more complicated.
  • Train staff to use data: As a business grows, so will its data requirements. Hiring the relevant skills later down the line can be expensive. Upskilling current employees is more effective and organic. There are many different data skills, and most are helpful to all employees, not just data specialists. By offering training opportunities for staff, they can cultivate data skills that will support the business in the future, including their grasp on data storage and governance. A subscription to a reputable online learning site can cultivate valuable skills for future data opportunities.
  • Find a good data partner: Handling data entirely in-house, especially data storage, can waste your people’s time and focus. A good data partner can better serve areas of data specialisation. Internal staff can mull strategy for data backups, while a good backup partner can sharpen the details and align them with those strategic requirements. Keeping certain specialist data skills on staff is unnecessary if you have a partner who can provide those skills as a service and adapt to your growing business.