Know when to hold ’em

How do I choose what applications my company will outsource?

For SMBs, the concept of outsourcing responsibility for information technology has been steadily growing in popularity. This growth is based on some sound logic: if IT management is not your specialty, find someone whose specialty it is and let them handle it.

Outsourcing doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, especially for firms of more than 100 users. But if your organization has fewer than 50 users, you could certainly find a firm that can manage all your IT needs, from consulting, servers, firewalls, printers, desktops, applications, Web presence and user support.

In my experience, many companies with more than 50 users and most with more than 100 have some pieces of their organization that are unique. Examples include: an association whose Web presence is mission-critical or that provides most of its member services over the Web and a chip design firm that is running very specific industry design software. These types of things are not easily outsourced since no one knows the specific applications or services as well as you do and full-time management is a necessity.

In our connected world, all our customers have similar infrastructures, whether they have 15 or 1,500 users. The things that are best outsourced are the things all organizations have. But this common business infrastructure allows us to compete in the everyday business world, so having the basics run dependably is an absolute necessity. Some of the things customers generally have in common are:

  • client devices (desktops, notebooks, Blackberries, etc)
  • remote access (VPN, Citrix, Outlook over the Web)
  • file and print servers (which store and print your files)
  • Some form of backup (tape, disk or remote)
  • malware protection (anti-virus, anti-spam and spyware protection)
  • communications servers (MS Exchange, RIM Server)
  • database servers (for customer lists or process automation)
  • printers
  • Web sites that require updating
  • firewalls to prevent unauthorized access

Many firms offer point solutions that cover only one or a few of the items above, and while their offers may seem compelling, make sure that they understand your environment and won’t charge extra if they find that the source of future problems lies outside their area. Sometimes having too many different point solutions can add complexity to your network and reduce your organization’s ability to operate efficiently.

Probably your best option is to find a full-service IT outsourcer who can cover most of your needs. One advantage is that you can avoid finger-pointing between, for example, the firewall people and the server people or anti-spam people when things go wrong. All these systems are inter-related; having one firm to take total responsibility can lead to improved client satisfaction and a much clearer definition of responsibilities.

The best way to decide what to outsource is to discuss as a management team exactly what services your firm offers to its clients and how IT is involved in the process. Think about the level of IT support and maintenance you currently get and examine where you think improvements can be made. Then look at your current IT costs: product purchases, software licenses, systems repairs, technical support, internal time spent managing the network, etc.

Once you have your list of costs and the areas where you would like to see improvement, write a few pages about your expectations and have an approximate annual budget in mind.

Now seek out some IT outsourcing firms. The best referrals are word-of-mouth referrals from peers, though you can also do Internet searches for IT services firms in your local area. Make sure you meet with the candidates. Don’t just e-mail them an RFP and expect to receive a price back. Good firms won’t invest any time in responding unless you are willing to spend some face time with them.

You should meet as a group with the top two firms and appoint one person from management to do the evaluation of proposals. Keep in mind that the ideal people for this task are not the technical people, but the business people, such as office managers, CFOs or finance people. They tend to better understand the practical needs of the users, the tactical direction of the organization and the budget limitations.

With these recommendations, you should be on your way to the start of a successful outsourcing relationship.

Larry Poirier is CEO of Ottawa’s Nitro Microsystems Inc., an Ottawa based IT outsourcing organization with 150 customers across Canada. He can be reached at

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