TechRepublic member Scott Billups sent me the following question by email:

How do you feel the cloud boom is effecting traditional IT professionals? Mainly in the small business world? I mean, it seems like if small businesses outsource their business to IT managed company, or use cloud with them (email, web, applications, share point…etc..) there is no need for traditional IT Consultants to help. They have the cloud service provider to call.

For example, a client of mine, I put them on hosted Exchange with Microsoft. Really though if they needed to control users, add users, distribution lists, resetting passwords, they could really do this themselves. I was thinking of transforming my services to cloud, but not sure how to charge for something that is being held somewhere else. What are your thoughts Chip?

Cloud is the dominant buzzword du jour and, as with most buzzwords, it’s susceptible to many different meanings. From Scott’s example, though, we can gather that he’s referring specifically to the use of hosted services to replace traditional desktop and small business server applications like email and document management. By moving these apps off of their own servers and into the cloud, they no longer require the same level of maintenance they did when they were in-house. Perhaps the business could do with fewer servers, or none at all.

Even though this isn’t the sort of consulting I do, a number of ideas spring to mind.

First, even though these systems virtually run themselves, many users will have no idea how to get started with them. Recommending which services to use, initially setting up the accounts, organizing shared resources, and training the users are all activities for which a business would readily pay a consultant.

For any generalized tool, the possible use cases may be infinite, but each business needs to establish its own standard practices. Not only so that everyone knows what tools they’re expected to use, where to find everything and how to access it, but also to maintain data integrity and security. You can help your users formulate these plans and procedures.

Naturally, you will observe how well various policies work for each of your existing clients, so you can help them revise their policies accordingly, as well as provide that wisdom to your new clients. If you serve a specific industry niche, your growing knowledge of how these services best benefit that niche can become a highly marketable skill. Perhaps you’ll develop a turnkey approach to setting up a particular kind of office, complete with an implementation plan that provides everything they’ll need, with minimal downtime.

Finally, we all know from experience that entropy extends its withering influence into any system that isn’t actively monitored. Your clients may not need the kinds of regular maintenance you’re providing today, but they’ll still need someone to check on things from time to time and make sure that they’re getting the most out of the services they’re using. Revise, but don’t eliminate, your maintenance contracts.

As technology progresses, the services that consultants perform today become irrelevant tomorrow. It’s uncomfortable to realize that your customary service model may soon be obsolete. But technology will never eliminate the IT industry, any more than the next programming language will eliminate the need for software engineers. People will always need help from someone who has been there before and knows what they’re doing. Automation may simplify many tasks and eliminate others, but that will only open the door to new activities that will require their own expertise. That’s where the consultant will always find a place.

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