Mike Manners doesn't feel the need to think much about the information technology needs of his residential real estate development company. "There's not a lot we can do with technology," says the president of Houston-based Elan Development. "We're the sort of business that's using dump trucks and bulldozers and that sort of stuff."

Yet a planned move to a new building that lacks landline Internet access is forcing him to consider how a different type of Internet connection can satisfy Elan's needs. And the memory of a recent frustrating week, unsuccessfully spent investigating a switch from his off-the-shelf small business accounting package to one specialized for residential development, has made him reluctantly aware of the potential cost of poor planning.

Most small businesses are probably in similar shape when it comes to IT planning. "They deal with a problem when they have it, and not really before," says Jared Powell, founder of InfinIT Consulting in San Jose, California. "It's kind of a run and gun atmosphere."

Small businesses can, however, benefit greatly from planning for future IT needs. IT planning can improve budgeting and, by scheduling implementation and training for new technology before it's needed, avoid having to wait for new capabilities to come up to speed. Planning allows small businesses to standardize on hardware and software platforms, saving money on purchasing, training and maintenance. It also reduces risk, by allowing business owners to foresee and forestall vulnerabilities that could lead to lost data, virus infection or hacker vandalism.

Even a small amount of neglected IT planning has the potential for completely shutting down a business. "We all the time run into cases where small businesses are moving into a new building and they don't think about wiring," Powell says. "They move in and find there's no Ethernet cabling at all." Then the business has to absorb not only cost of retrofitting the building, but the likely far greater cost of downtime.

Effective IT planning starts with a review of your business's goals and objectives. Consider whether and how much you expect to grow over the next one-, three- and five-year periods. Identify the abilities you'll need to accommodate future growth, as well as solutions to problems you are experiencing now.

Next, meet with relevant stakeholders in your company, as well as vendors, customers and others who will be affected by your IT decisions. Then perform an inventory of your hardware, software and other IT assets. Review the administrative processes you're following now, such as data backup and maintenance schedules.

Now research and evaluate available IT solutions in light of what you have and what you need. Draft a roadmap for implementing new IT solutions as well as sustaining the ones you have today. Implementing the roadmap is the next-to-last step. As you go, you'll be revising your IT plan and you'll keep doing that on a regular, ongoing basis even after you've implemented the roadmap.

An "if it's not broken, don't fit it" attitude is common among small business owners who avoid IT planning. But some changes to software, in particular, are all but forced on businesses, such as with the frequent automatic updates to word processing, spreadsheet, web browser and other standard programs. Other upgrades, such as to new operating systems and application suites, are slower moving but nearly inevitable.

Avoiding change for the sake of avoiding change can hurt a business's chances for improvement. For instance, Microsoft's recently released Small Business Server is an opportunity for small firms to have the same communication, security and other technology capabilities as much larger firms, Powell says. "Those are things that are pretty high end, but now you can get into it for relatively low cost," he says.

All told, IT planning is an area where the majority of small businesses -- even those who don't think they use technology much -- can benefit from a modicum of thought, research, forecasting and action. That includes low-tech and very small businesses. In fact, Powell says, the simpler your business, the greater the benefit you can generate. "Every business should do IT planning," says Powell. "On the small business side they can get a lot of bang for their buck if they do a little planning."