I was contacted offline by an American dentist after my 20th June post “Drilling Deeper” posted. The gentleman was very polite, and agreed with some of my arguments. The one position that he took issue with struck a corresponding chord with me: In his e-mail, he said
“[W]e have IT consult groups on regular retainer fees and have regularly hired IT consultations on upgrades, but they change their advice over time and change often, leaving us with units that don’t operate the latest versions on a regular basis. We’d have to buy new systems every 6 months, it seems, to keep up. So it’s not safe to rely long term on some outside expert …”
I submit that the good doctor is right and wrong for the exact same reason: first, dependence on outside experts is always a strategic risk and should be avoided if it’s at all practical to do to. I can say that with confidence, having spent over a decade as a professional IT consultant and small-business owner. Many, many times, I’d find myself asking why a customer was paying me to perform a service or design a solution for them when they should really have been performing the action in-house. Moreover, I questioned why were they giving me unrestricted access to their confidential systems and files – making themselves vulnerable to potential exploitation – when the solution or service they wanted was clearly achievable without providing me with unlimited access.
Second, it shouldn’t be a surprise that an IT consultant’s recommendation is going to change over time. An IT consultant is usually hired to solve a specific technical challenge – to resolve a condition that has created a work-stoppage. We get paid to clear a fault, and are expected to go away immediately thereafter. Many times, a mercenary technologist aren’t provided the time, the resources or the required insight into the customer’s confidential business needs to make recommendations that will facilitate smoother support after the engagement is concluded. We usually have to repair problems that – bluntly – wouldn’t have existed had the customer kept up with current technologies. They’re usually problems that will inevitable recur, since they were caused by inherent system instabilities, misaligned business practices or (most often) user ignorance.
I’ve made it a point to add additional content in my post-engagement reports to explain to my clients certain aspects of my technical design or recent repair action that will be need to be factored in order to prevent a recurrence of the problem. For example, after installing a new departmental file server for a large church, I made up a prioritized list of the commercial training courses that the employee identified to support the system would almost certainly require in order to become proficient in maintaining the equipment. I provided sources for the training, and even left a reference book behind as a “bonus deliverable” so that the outfit wouldn’t necessarily be dependent on me (or anyone else) to keep the server running. The customer didn’t pay for that, and I didn’t suggest charging them for it – I considered it to be an ethical imperative.
I don’t see that sort of “let me help you help yourself” behavior often, and I understand why that is. Businesses that find themselves dependent on outsiders for critical IT support resent the fact that they’re dependent. Three’s often some denial and some hostility that accompanies contracting out a support service, especially when the engagement exposes organizational vulnerability. I have a great deal of empathy for the customer … but often very little sympathy.
Here’s the issue: if your business is dependent on a tool to function, and you choose to not hire an employee to support that tool, then you are, by default, choosing to make yourself both dependent on outside agencies, and vulnerable to disruption in the delivery of your core business functions. For the above-mentioned dentist, I offered this analogy to help put things in perspective:
If dental X-rays are a core function of your patient diagnostics regimen, it stands to reason that you will treat it as a strategic priority to learn how to buy, operate, troubleshoot, maintain and safely retire your X-ray equipment. Without your X-ray kit working, you’re likely to lose money and customers. Therefore, someone in your business had best understand the X-ray kit well enough to keep it running, and should know when and how to upgrade it to prevent it from becoming obsolete. Replace the term “X-ray” with “IT” and nothing is different.
No matter what your business delivers, the first time that you discover that you’re dependent upon IT services to execute a core business functions you then have to make a choice: do you hire an employee to design, implement, sustain and optimize your IT plant? Or do you outsource those functions to a third-party? Both options are legitimate choices. The first option is potentially expensive, since you’re adding an employee to the payroll that isn’t line-of-business direct. That’s hard to justify for a struggling business. The second option, however, actually increase your cost over time, since the lack of a coherent, logical, sustainable plan for systems integration, IT lifecycle management, consistent documentation, in-house user training, etc. vastly multiplies the probability of experiencing a major systems outage, and increases the difficulty of clearing the outage since your contracted support agent has to figure out when, how and how much your cobbled-together system went awry.
When you don’t have your own in-house capability, and things break, you wind up paying an expert to come save your business for you. If you’re very, very lucky, you get someone who goes out of their way to help you become self-sufficient; if you’re unlucky, you get a one-time “fix” that leaves you even more unstable than you were before the outage, and likely increases your future downtime and financial losses.
My advice to all small business owners … If you’re large enough that you can afford to hire an employee to do anything that’s not direct production-related (e.g., a receptionist, office admin, janitor, customer service specialist, human relations specialist, etc.), then you must have your own IT support expert on-staff. The longer you wait to bring that capability in-house – the longer you’re dependent on a strong of unpredictable outside boffins to save your business – the more likely it is that the decision to forgo organic IT support is going to bite you in the neck.
I don’t want to suggest that we IT consultants aren’t a good resource; I’m simply suggesting that we can only do so much to save you as an outsider responding to a crisis.
Keil Hubert is an business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own). His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.