Friday December 13, 2019

When it's time to consult the consultants

An SME probably doesn't need full-time IT, but does need tech support. Here's where partnering with a consultant can work well

1st December, 2019

It’s often said that the skills needed to start a business are not the same as those needed to make it a success over time. While a couple of laptops and a few smartphones will probably do the job in the early days of a company in terms of technology, there comes a time when all SMEs need a proper IT system.

Employing a full-time tech specialist is one option, but for most small businesses this is overkill. It makes more sense to engage with the wider IT industry and one of the many consultancies that offer their services in this area. But what should you be prioritising when it comes to IT outsourcing?

“Technology can be a complex subject. There are certain basic things you can do yourself, but it often makes sense to get someone else in to handle this for you,” said Angela Madden, managing director of Rits Information Security, an IT consultancy that specialises in security advice and technology.

“How much help you need depends on what you’re trying to achieve. A small company probably doesn’t have enough of a requirement to justify having someone full-time on staff. That’s expensive, and the reality is that it’s also very difficult to find a person with all the skillsets you need, particularly when you might not know in advance what those are.”

Because it’s a lot cheaper to retain the services of a consultancy, that’s what most small to medium-sized companies tend to do.

“That way you can call on them as and when you need them for advice, consulting or technical help. Smaller companies probably don’t need someone on site five days a week, 50 weeks of the year. But when you need them you probably really need them,” said Madden.

A partnership with a consultancy can work well because over time it’s possible to build up a relationship with them which allows them to learn what you do and how you do it. They should get to know you and be able to arrive on-site up to speed when there is a problem.

This is an important consideration, according to Madden, and it’s one of the reasons she suggests that it can make sense to work with a smaller company rather than a large consultancy.

“With large companies you can end up playing a game of lucky dip in terms of who arrives out to your office to help you if you have a problem. You want someone who is already familiar with your infrastructure and business. Otherwise you end up paying for them to learn on your time,” she said.

It’s extremely important, Madden said, that any SME working with an IT consultancy makes sure that full documentation is kept, detailing exactly what the consultancy is doing.

“It’s very important that you have good procedures in place to make sure your partner company is documenting what they’re doing properly. Your dedicated contact could leave their employer, for example, or you might want to move to a different consultancy, but if they haven’t been documenting what they’re doing, then any new partner is going to take time to get up to speed,” she said.

“You should ensure there is a formal change control and approval process in place so you know what changes the consultant is making to your network, and you have the supporting documentation. You need to have things like network diagrams, and you need to know what’s turned on and what’s turned off. “

Michael Conway, director of security specialist Renaissance, agreed. At the end of the day, he said, the owners and the directors of a business are responsible for how they run the company.

“You can delegate lots of things, but you can’t delegate legal responsibility. There are lots of regulatory and legal issues that we all have in business, and if something goes wrong, you can’t say ‘I had someone else look after it for me and they let me down’,” he said.

Despite this, Conway believes that it makes eminent sense to outsource IT to a specialist provider.

“Unless IT is core to your organisation and what it does, it’s perfectly reasonable to rely on a provider to help you. SMEs do this all the time with their accounts and marketing, PR and even human resources needs,” he said.

The important thing is that SMEs have realistic ideas of what an IT consultancy can do for them, and what it can’t.

“They have a far better understanding of their subject than probably you ever will and they can advise you on what’s good, what’s bad, what’s doable and what’s inadvisable,” Conway said. “Basically, IT consultants can do IT really well. They don’t always get it right – like lots of other sciences it’s a little bit imprecise at times – but most of the time they do a good job.”

Conway conceded that sometimes there can be issues between SMEs and IT consultants on the basis that they can find themselves speaking different languages.

“Consultants can find it hard to bridge the level of understanding they have with non-technical people. They can assume that people will know what an ERP system is or a CRM system is, for example,” he said. “A consultant that’s worth their weight in gold is one who empathises with the client and understands what they do inside and out, and who also understands the technology and who can map one on to the other.”

Marc O’Regan is chief technology officer for Dell Technologies Ireland, and has worked with client companies large and small for many years. He believes that the key to getting this aspect of business right is finding a partner consultancy that understands how technology aligns to business.

“Technology is enormously important in 2019, and there probably isn’t a single company in the country that isn’t using it in one form or another. And an increasing number of Irish companies are taking digitally-driven, data-first approaches,” he said. “Having a trusted partner or consultancy able to help you move your strategy in the correct way is extraordinarily important.”

One of the advantages that a consultancy can have in dealing with an SME is that they typically work with lots of other client companies and as a result have a broad spread of experience. By becoming a client, you can access expertise that’s been gained elsewhere.

“In the area of technology, for example, there are many buzz-terms which it’s common to hear thrown around or to read about. It’s natural for an SME owner to wonder if they are relevant to their business,” O’Regan said.

“They may be questioning if they’re missing a trick by not using blockchain, artificial intelligence or some other technology that’s getting a lot of attention at the moment. A really good approach is to choose a technology partner who understands emerging and existing tech and can guide you in the right way.”

A danger for people who don’t know the ins and outs of technology properly is that when something new comes out, they often look for applications of it even if it’s not an ideal fit for their business.

“When something like blockchain, AI or whatever appears, it gets picked up and promoted everywhere as the hot new thing for 12 to 24 months. These technologies are extraordinarily powerful and innovative, but some of them just won’t be relevant to everyone. That’s a fact,” said O’Regan.

“There’s so much out there that you need someone who can navigate that for you, and build a bridge between whatever you’ve already invested in and are working with, and all this new stuff. You still need to be getting good return on investment as you move into the next ten years, taking your technology with you.”

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