How do I make sure that I’m getting value for money and remain in control when I outsource my technology support and maintenance?

The first step should occur before you outsource anything, and it involves taking a hard look at your organization. Think about the level of IT support and maintenance you currently get and calculate how much you pay for it. Don’t forget to include IT training budgets, lost productivity and downtime and the cost of rehiring new IT staff when your people leave for greener pastures.

Also, weigh the potential costs of security breaches and other problems that could occur because your internal staff is short on expertise in certain technology areas.

Technically, you should also add into the mix any bad technology decisions you’ve made recently — buying the wrong database, that firewall that costs you a ton to maintain and goes down all the time, or the server that had to be replaced well before its expected four-year lifespan. These problems can be overcome by a good third-party service provider.

Granted, not every company should outsource. Some firms might have the technology pieces they need and the right IT people on site to handle them. Others with very specialized needs, such as high-end engineering, technology or biotech firms, should maintain in-house support for the very specific applications they use. However, even these companies might benefit from outsourcing some areas of peripheral support such as e-mail systems or admin support, backup maintenance or other, more mundane tasks.

In most other cases, small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) want help with network security, e-mail system maintenance, file and print services, database support, the monitoring of their daily backups, remote access setup for their mobile workers, management of their anti-virus and anti-spam defences, wireless access and server maintenance. They could also use someone to manage platform upgrades, network migrations, security policies, disaster recovery planning and, last and not least, end-user support. That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Some organizations assume that one person can be an expert in such a vast array of skills. You wouldn’t expect your general health-care practitioner to be an experienced urologist, pediatrician and heart surgeon.

Once you’ve figured out what your existing IT services cost you, make a list of the services your organization requires. Now it’s time to find an outsourcer.

How can you find a reputable organization? One of the best ways is word of mouth. Another option is to use a vendor-sponsored organization such as VentureTech Network, or CompTIA. These are SMB support specialists, certified by top IT vendors such as IBM, HP, Microsoft and Cisco. Still, don’t forget to get a minimum of five references for any candidate you are seriously considering.

When you do sign someone, make certain you negotiate a 30-day cancellation clause in case a service you buy proves unsatisfactory. Also, it is very important to establish a good rapport with your service provider from the very beginning. Superior communications are essential if a trusting relationship is to develop and flourish. Get your service provider to designate one employee to act as your point person — someone who will be responsible for getting back to you whenever you have a question or concern.

Here’s a simple way to outsource and remain in control — make the organization taking charge of your network support take financial responsibility for your downtime. You’d be surprised how quickly this will separate the wannabees from the legitimate IT service players.

Whether outsourcing is right for your organization is something every responsible C-level manager must carefully consider. He or she must always ask: Will it give us a strategic advantage over our competitors and make our workforce more productive?

Remember, when you outsource, you’re not just outsourcing a task, you’re outsourcing responsibility too. Make that other party responsible, and then hold them accountable.

Larry Poirier is CEO of Ottawa’s Nitro Microsystems Inc., an independently owned IT outsourcing organization with 120 corporate customers across Canada. He can be reached at larryp@nitro.ca

Got a question for our experts? E-mail smbexpert@itbusiness.ca.

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