IT support: better out or in?

Can you afford to outsource your support? Can you afford not to? Mark Vernon puts both sides of the argument

Can you afford to outsource your support? Can you afford not to? Mark Vernon puts both sides of the argument

Outsourcing IT support was one of the great growth areas for the IT industry in the past decade. Indeed, some analysts wonder whether providing this facility in-house now makes any sense at all.

The logic revolves around the benefits of cost, competency and connectivity. Outsourcing controls costs, because fixed rates set limits on the IT spend. Organisations are increasingly turning to outsourcing to focus their energies on what they do best: not providing a helpdesk for office applications. The falling costs of connectivity means that services can be delivered remotely.

As a strategy, outsourcing has its drawbacks. It might ease support, but at the cost of cultural strangeness or reduced response times. It might solve the problem of recruiting and retaining staff, but add to commercial risks with trust being passed to a third party.

Outsourcing might look financially efficient, but is it effective when good IT support depends as much on intangibles such as diplomacy and familiarity? How, then, to assess the pros and cons of providing IT support in and out of house?

The most obvious area of contention is the shortage of IT skills and support experience. Here outsourcing might win over provision in-house. "IT support teams should ideally consist of a diverse set of highly-skilled individuals with the necessary expertise built up over a period of time, including technical skills and knowledge, gained through exposure to a variety of clients," says Lucy Goodman, a marketing consultant at CMG.

She also suggests that partners might be able to provide staff that are better equipped in terms of being trained in organisational skills such as time management, priority setting and general business knowledge, perhaps unfamiliar to the traditional IT department.

The specialist technical requirements for e-business, notably security and connectivity, would also seem to play into the outsourcers' hands. Ian McKenzie, business development director for Internet security at ESOFT Global, says there is no single approach that solves all information security challenges. "The technologies and protocols that are the foundation of security approaches can be abstract, complex and difficult to grasp. New protocols, technologies and strategic alliances are announced with alarming regularity that have the potential to change the complexion of the information security marketplace," he says.

Further, e-business raises these issues beyond the level of mere support to being critical for success. "Any organisation that uses the internet for e-mail or a Web site needs to treat security more strategically and see it as a source of competitive advantage," he adds.

However, the need for a diverse skills sets possibly plays against outsourcing too. Intangible abilities might come better in-house. Goodman says support demands abilities such as sympathy and patience when the computer crashes, diplomacy and tolerance when accusations are made and being adaptive to various working environments. It is not that outsourcing partners are inherently more or less sympathetic, tolerant or adaptive. It is just that these qualities might be held more naturally within the organisation.

Another facet to the skills issue comes from the possibility of "co-sourcing". For example IT service company Allied Worldwide specialises in putting the right people, with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time and only for the required period of time. The offer of help is made doubly attractive by the provision of guarantees on fee costs. The company believes it is possible to work hand in glove with organisations and overcome the skills problem.

Another area in which in-house support might win is response times. "By keeping IT support in-house, many companies feel we they can turn around problems more quickly and more effectively than by outsourcing the service," says Steve Corfe, a consultant with Druid, the IT management consultancy arm of FI Group. "Wherever possible problems can be resolved on site, user downtime is kept to a minimum, as users do not have to wait for an engineer to appear."

It is for this reason that organisations often opt for a compromise with pure outsourcing, by having the partner's staff working in-house. Corfe says this third way can help with important fundamentals for good IT support: hardware platforms and PC software builds are standardised; support staff are familiar with users' technical environment since they have daily exposure to that environment; support staff are well known to the users and a working relationship is built with them; relationships with users can evolve since support teams work alongside their "customers". This helps to build trust and mutual understanding which may be absent when using off-site third parties.

However, a major source of anxiety for in-house support teams is motivation. The problem begins with recruiting the right type of people to start with, but rapidly develops into devising the means of retaining them. Outsourcing organisations might well argue that they are far better positioned both to find and to provide IT support staff with the experience, exposure and career development that stimulates them to thrive. "Rotation of staff into other roles is key to providing highly motivated staff who can improve the area in which they are working," says Alan McCarthy of consultancy Pink Elephant. "It is not in the interest of either the organisation or the individual to be performing the same role for long periods of time. It is not always easy to keep moving people around. You can't just conjure up new jobs for people to do."

Alternatively, as Ian Robinson, account operations manager, CWB, points out, joining an in-house support team is often viewed as a stepping stone to joining a development team. This creates two distinct problems: staff view support as a short-term proving-ground before getting on to the interesting work; support for the business suffers as staff are placed in support teams specifically to learn skills.

Desktop management is laborious but Colin Bartram, product marketing director at Vector Networks, a desktop management specialist, believes equipping staff with the tools for the job is the key to motivation. "By investing on their behalf you are recognising what an awful job it can be. That's your first win. Second, the tools can actually make the job more satisfying, even possibly fun on occasions. Third, the user experience is better, they appreciate the desktop support service more, and this comes through in attitudes and the way in which support is treated by the rest of the organisation."

Outsourced pros and in-house cons

  • Maintaining motivation of in-house skilled support workers can be a major headache. Outsourcers can better motivate support staff by varying work and providing career path

  • Outsourcing provides fixed costs for the support function, demand for which can vary enormously

  • Outsourcing partners have access to a large body of experienced support workers, with exposure to a variety of clients

  • Outsourced support workers are likely to be better trained on issues such as organisational skills, time management and priority setting

  • Complex technical issues, such as security, might be better supported by specialist partners.

    In-house pros and outsourced cons

  • Do outsourcing partners really know your business, and care about it?

  • In-house teams not only know the business but produce work already tailored to support it

  • In-house support might be better on the personal issues of support, such as speaking the right language and understanding corporate culture.

  • When in-house, faster response times are possible when problems arise, plus issues are solved more quickly as they are addressed on-site.

  • In-house support staff, including partner employees working on site, are familiar with users' technical environment and are well known to the users. This develops good working relationships and supports best practices

    How to motivate in-house staff

  • Make sure the right people are recruited for the job. If someone wants to work on deploying the Web site or on business development, desktop management is not going to interest them for long

  • Provide regular training and skills development opportunities to keep staff equipped for the job. Progressive HR practices can help too

  • Keep support staff informed. Many will believe, rightly or wrongly, that outsourcing is a constant threat to their jobs, which reduces loyalty. Being seen to invest in support is good too

  • Incorporate support into the overall business objectives of the firm. Support is often treated as a 'plumbing' issue. But as e-business experience shows, when systems go down, the bottom line is affected as quickly and as significantly as any other kind of business failure

  • Identify ways of retaining staff. At one level this will include ensuring that salaries are set at the right levels. But research shows that salaries are not all: a good working environment with pleasant bosses is as important.

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