The less travelled Road
Many small businesses ignore ICT support until they need it. But then what? Which support models are advisable and what should they cover? To what extent can support be outsourced? Vikki Bland goes in search of some answers.
Remember that slightly corny and over-quoted line from the poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost? – the one that talks about two roads in a yellow wood and ends ‘And I took the one less travelled by…and that has made all the difference’. Apologies to Frost, but there’s an analogy between these words and the typical small business approach to ICT support and training. Small businesses on the first road use friends, ‘rellies’ and phone calls to ICT resellers to try to solve their support issues, while those on the second road pay a regular monthly fee to a reputable ICT support provider and trainer who then ensures the ICT infrastructure of the business runs smoothly and people get the ICT training they need. Guess which road is the one less travelled by? After years of writing about small business ICT service and support options I still wonder why more businesses don’t simply develop a relationship with an ICT support provider and pay a monthly or hourly fee for the peace of mind this delivers – surely being able to pick up the phone and talk to someone you know well, and who cares about your business, is better than trawling all over the Internet looking for free online solutions or taking a printer to bits to find out why it won’t print on a crucial deadline. And when your network crashes, wiping out access to key software applications and preventing staff from working, why risk calling a friend for help – or the 17 year old computer ‘expert’ who works for your local computer retailer? While it’s true that global ICT vendors are working hard to provide online access to a wide range of free tutorials, web chats and online diagnostics for small businesses – and there are some excellent examples of these – only a small number of people know how to get the best from them by asking the right questions, and an even smaller number have the time. Throw in the fact that ICT tools are redesigned and upgraded constantly and new data security threats developed while you’re awake and asleep, and you have to ask why small business owners even want to wear the hat marked “IT manager” when they don’t dream of wearing the hat marked “accountant.” When it all goes wrong When small businesses choose not to invest in either an internal IT manager or an external support and training provider, it’s not long till important ICT support issues get overlooked. Damian Funnell, director for FFF Managed Technology which offers a central helpdesk, managed services and ICT outsourcing, says New Zealand businesses have an ingrained DIY culture that’s difficult to push against. “IT support is viewed as a bit of a grudge purchase and customers allow themselves to get into a bit of a state before asking for help. Our typical new customer has started off looking after systems themselves, then lost track of what’s going on. They phone up in despair saying things are getting out of control and they are having unacceptable levels of downtime,” says Funnell. Shiree Hart, a knowledge consultant for Allfields Customised Solutions which specialises in ICT training and software development, says small businesses get in touch only when the usual friend is not available or when they feel let down because the friend is at a loss to solve the problem. “It often takes a support incident like loss of data following a power surge for the business to consider outside help. Or the realisation that planned backups have failed and business data is not backed up at all – a common problem,” says Hart. Michael Russell, managing director for Origin IT which provides support and training to mid-sized organisations, says many businesses don’t know if their site is secure because there’s no documentation in place to support the site. Companies supported by internal employees also have a problem when those people leave or are sick and take passwords and a working knowledge of the systems with them. “Also, lots of companies don’t ensure their backups are working and have no redundancy plans in place if the network crashes. We see these challenges on a daily basis,” says Russell. He says OriginIT deals with companies running 15 computers up to “hundreds”, can show companies what they have been spending on IT and offers a fixed monthly fee for all network support – which may be a fraction of what the business pays for support on an ad-hoc basis. If you’re wondering why small businesses don’t simply take advantage of the support options offered by ICT resellers, the answer is that they can of course. However, some resellers are better at after-sales support than others, which is why the small business pages on the websites of large ICT brands like HP and Microsoft tend to recommend particular resellers (always check these sites before engaging with a reseller for sales or after-sales service). Another consideration is the sheer number of ICT resellers that a small business may have to interact with if it takes the approach of only using resellers for support. Russell says ICT resellers offer only part of the puzzle. “They may only sell hardware or software or only provide IT support, while we take full ownership of what we are responsible for and treat our clients and suppliers how we expect to be treated. We say all the time we can’t promise the gear they have will be trouble free but we can promise to take full ownership of the challenges and communicate with the client – the mark of a good support company is how you handle challenges,” says Russell. What’s on offer? So what can businesses that don’t want the worry and responsibility of looking after their ICT infrastructure expect from an ICT support and training provider? Hart says Allfields likes to teach its clients a small amount of on-the-spot troubleshooting and offers monthly support plans in which a technician accesses the business remotely over an Internet connection or visits to check the network and talk over new ICT initiatives such as a move to a wireless network, or a major printing and imaging purchase. New clients may also need to pay for a few days of consultancy up front in order for the company to audit the support needs of the client and conduct backups. “We are not tied to any one particular vendor solution, we are too small. We just find whatever is the best solution for the business at the time,” says Hart. She says the key to a successful relationship is two-way respect – the client needs to respect the support provider, their knowledge, and their ability to get the job done; and the provider needs to respect that the client is in business and therefore is business savvy if not ICT savvy. Conversations in ‘plain English’ are appreciated, points out Hart. “It’s not about the quality of account managers or numbers of certificates and accreditations a support or training provider has; for small businesses it’s [also] about the personal touch,” she says. Funnell recommends small businesses allow support providers to make a “sober assessment” of their ICT environment, a process that will list problems and include recommendations which may be technology upgrades. From there, businesses can opt to maintain their own networks and software with on-site service or training from an external provider, or let an external provider remotely manage their systems over an online connection. Russell says the latter option can free up an IT manager to work in a more strategic manner and time to support becomes a lot more efficient. He says OriginIT has built a boutique data centre with security and redundancy including backup generators, a failover firewall, air conditioning, site security, and failover fibre connectivity in order to host and support client systems. “We typically find that we are able to complement IT managers and show them ways that we can deal with the day-to-day support which includes helpdesk support, onsite engineering, network monitoring, and server health checks, backup, security and procurement, among other services,” says Russell. Moving on out Occasionally a small business will outsource its entire IT operation, a decision made by Wellington-based recruitment firm Helium Work Search. Helium has ten staff and a Citrix-based computer network running a business critical Client Relationship Management (CRM) application, among other systems. Director Mike Baker says Helium made the decision to entirely outsource ICT operations to provider Revera, which now hosts and manages Helium’s desktop terminals, printers, photocopiers and software applications including the company’s accounting system. Staff access the system via a dedicated online connection while Revera looks after system upgrades, data security and backup, as well as acting as a central hub for the information. “We can all work from home if we need to. All we need is a command that will allow us to get access, which is as long as we have access to the Internet,” says Baker. He says when Helium decided to offer franchise opportunities it realised it would need centrally accessible ICT systems that could grow and found it didn’t have that. “While we could identify systems that could allow us to grow, we didn’t know where we would store them [going forward],” says Baker. He says Helium was previously managing its own servers, needed daily backups and had ongoing issues. Worse, ICT support was costing “a small fortune.” Outsourcing to Revera allowed Helium to get on with the business of recruitment while someone else took care of ICT. “If I have a problem I have an 0800 number and the support call gets logged according to priority. If we want new software or upgrades, then Revera can provide that with a few weeks’ notice. Using an outsource supplier also means we can now add a branch [or a new franchiser] any time we like,” says Baker. Adding to the debate about whether it’s wise to tackle ICT support internally is the reality that small businesses find it almost impossible to recruit and retain skilled ICT people – these people are usually after a challenging position with training and development opportunities and a multi-vendor environment. Funnell says: “For this and many reasons there is a gradual move to share internal ICT support tasks with external providers as businesses realise ICT support is not something they just do in their spare time.” Not unless you have an awful lot of spare time, that is – and small businesses don’t. Vikki Bland is an Auckland-based freelance IT writer. Email [email protected]. Relevant websites: www.fff.co.nz www.allfields.net www.originit.co.nz www.revera.co.nz www.ace.co.nz www.extramiletraining.co.nz