Following an organizational restructuring and deep cuts in my department, I found myself as the only remaining in-house IT staff member. Upper management had decided that outsourcing—which many shops reserve for noncore tasks such as printer maintenance and after-hour emergencies—was the cost-effective answer to handling our network administration needs.
I was tasked with outlining various outsource staffing models, as well as determining how this heavy reliance on contract help would affect the company's overall IT strategy. After I clearly defined our needs and internal customer expectations, an al la carte approach to buying these services on the contractor market appeared to be the best answer.
In this article, I'll share my experiences with you to give you a firsthand look at some of the decisions and challenges you may face if your organization chooses to outsource some or all of your network administration.
What are your choices?
When executive management asked me to arrange outsourced help to meet our company's needs, I started by identifying the available types of staffing resources. The main options I came up with were:
- Regular employees
- Contract employees
- Subcontracting agencies
- Service providers
- Project-based contract work
Depending on the size and scope of your needs, the solution will probably mean some combination of these resources. In my situation, managing service provider relationships allowed us to add IT services without adding IT staff.
Identify network administration needs
Once I determined the staffing options, my next step was to identify network administration needs. Putting everything on the table enabled all parties to see the scope of the decisions involved. It is important to bring non-IT leaders into this process, as they are the "customers" of IT.
The process of defining the network administration needs can be facilitated by producing a graphical representation. The level of technology detail is not important, but making sure that everyone understands the basic technology needs is the key to obtaining the correct solution(s). Figure A shows a graphic that gives an effective overview of the technology needs of a sample organization.
Define objectives of the business relationship
Avoid entering into a relationship with a service provider without clearly defined and measurable objectives. Bringing a provider into your network with the vague objective of “Provide support of desktop hardware and software” is opening your IT infrastructure up to loosened standards and potential problems down the road. Consider having all parties agree on specific, measured outcomes on performance and break that down into categories and subcategories.
Quality of service for the end user
The quality of service to the customer (end user) is another important consideration in weighing outsourcing decisions. For end users in an outsourced networked environment, it is reasonable to expect degradation in service. I have observed that response time, frequent personnel changes, slow communication, and lack of understanding the needs of the organization and its background by the service provider's IT professionals are among the impediments to having a large range of outsourced solutions.
Planning and accountability
I have also noticed that outsourced solutions can help or hinder your long-term plan for IT. From my experiences, service providers need someone internal to the organization to help guide the long-term IT needs (or at least to ask for approval from management). That way, strategic planning for IT can be met with the organization’s best interests in mind.
In my case, we were provided decent day-to-day support, but the long-term planning for IT didn't reflect the needs of the organization. It's possible that I didn't provide enough guidance, but the nature of the relationship was supposed to ensure that the service providers would give my organization IT direction.
Accountability from the providers is crucial for the organization. One area that can frequently get overlooked is disaster recovery. Most service providers will provide a detailed disaster recovery and business continuity plan if you offer to pay for it, but many companies don't utilize this expensive option and are left with only a basic backup procedure. This can be acceptable, but will the service providers be able to do a recovery if all they have is a backup tape of the data? And, further, have they tested the backup procedures?
Making the right outsourcing decision for your organization does not involve a simple yes or no answer. Every situation is complex and requires objective consideration. My experience has taught me a lot about what you can expect from external organizations. My conclusion is that a comprehensive outsourced solution is not as effective as an in-house strategy because of the degradation in service and the hindrance to long-term planning. However, there's no question that, in some cases, extensive outsourcing can save money.