Ensuring back up is guaranteed in a small IT department

With a very small ITdepartment ensuring adequate back-up can sometimes be difficult. Our panel of experts advises on solutions

With a very small ITdepartment ensuring adequate back-up can sometimes be difficult. Our panel of experts advises on solutions

I am the entire IT department of a small management consultancy which has 55 people. We have a small back-office function with six people, and this makes our computers mission-critical. All consultants are based at client sites or work from home. We have an outsourced document exchange server but I do everything else. This works, but is too high-risk (what if I am run over by a bus?) and will soon reach capacity. How can we ensure our consultants continue to get a high-quality service without costs getting out of control?

Enjoy the challenge

Andrew Davies

Visiting professor in information systems, Cranfield School of Management

You are concerned that your firm is too dependent on your expertise and would have major problems if you weren't there. I suggest, in that unlikely event, that the firm would find ways to handle the situation. You should ensure you keep good records of the work you do, and of the equipment and software configurations, so that someone else does not have to do this from scratch, but beyond that don't be too concerned.

You also hint that you expect to need help as your firm continues to expand. There are lots of well trained young people who would love to work in IT, and you should easily find an assistant to give you more capacity. This would also help with providing back-up to you.

To ensure that you continue to give a high-quality service, you need to find other people doing the same thing, so that you can share experience. Some of your consultants may be able to help with this and your accountants are often a good source of contacts.

You are obviously in a good firm with lots of opportunities for innovative exploitation of IT - enjoy the challenge and don't waste money.

Documentation is the key

Neil Spencer-Jones

Managing consultant, NCC Group

This is a classic problem encountered when any new department outgrows the work capacity of its founder. You will now have to develop into a new role as head of IT.

The best way to ensure that you have a sustainable quality service is to develop a robust set of policies and procedures that are well documented. This will require the documentation of many things you do. If your workload does not allow you to do this, bring in help from outside to work with you to develop and formalise these.

You should build a list of priorities by carrying out a risk analysis and then deal with the areas that pose the highest risks first.

Once you have a robust set of policies and procedures, a rising workload will enable you to bring in junior staff. They can then follow the approach you have set with limited risk to the effectiveness of your service. The most difficult tasks on your journey to becoming a head of department will be starting the documentation of procedures and policies and then keeping them up to date. If you don't do both your consultants will be ultimately asking questions!

Look for a perfect partner

Roger Marshall

IT director, Corporation of London

You have three options: to carry on as you are but recruit a second person for IT support, to outsource the whole IT function to a third party, or to enter into a flexible sourcing partnership with a third party.

The first option may be unattractive because it still leaves your company exposed, the new person would be a junior who could not be expected to cover all your roles, and you may find the cost too high. Outsourcing has the obvious disadvantage for you personally in that your role would be greatly diminished and it may be too much of a leap in the dark for your company to take - the risks are different but still real.

The third way, then, is for you to retain the overall management and strategy and continue to provide some of the IT support. Your partner organisation will take over the rest of the support work, whatever fits in best with your own skills and availability. It may, for example, be better able to provide the local support for consultants working from home than you can.

How do you go about finding the ideal partner?

Depending on your geographical spread you may be looking for a local or a national firm. If your consultancy is specialised it may be that there are IT suppliers with a good track record in your business. Whatever you do, put a lot of effort into selecting the partner, talking to existing customers who have the kind of arrangement you are looking for. And do be sure the contract terms are right - get advice if you're not certain- and that you can control the costs without losing control of the service provided.

Take control of the IT strategy

David Roberts


One man you may be, but the large organisation symptoms are there. Growth, "conflicting" standards (aka none), minimum administration, outsourcing, remote clients and staff, an increasing dependency on IT, demand for increasing rather than diminishing quality and pressure on costs. Yet what an ideal opportunity!

There are two musts. First you must insist on standards and central control of IT, not just desktops and remote PCs and laptops but communications and applications. All infrastructure systems should be tied down for remote updates "when-logged-on". You should push IT and company communications to consultants. Don't wait for them to pull.

The second is arguing the contingency case. With no one else but you, the IT systems become extremely vulnerable the moment the business has clients in two or more time zones. Your organisation must already recognise it is very dependent on its IT - you need someone to do your job so you can focus on the next step. Technology is not going to get simpler. IT decisions get progressively more expensive and will affect the ability of the business to retain clients and sustain growth.

In six months the technologies for communicating, maintaining and expanding a remote corporate workforce should be transformed and finding an ASP may become a realistic solution.

Next week

Last year my IT department spent a large part of our budget on Y2K compliancy, egged on by the doom-mongers in consultancies and the IT press. As everyone knows, the predicted apocalypse didn't happen. Now, we are being told of the importance of Euro compliance and how we must be prepared for the changeover - is this a real problem to look out for or just another money-spinner for IT services companies and how do I convince the board that it isn't another case of the boy crying wolf?

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