It’s vital that managed services providers you work with are managed by someone with the requisite people skills in your firm. By Sally Whittle
There are more than 200 managed services providers (MSPs) in the UK and the managed services label has been adopted by everyone from application service providers to carriers and outsourcing providers.
MSPs are essentially the people to whom you will transfer your existing IT and human assets to run selective applications, hardware and infrastructure – hopefully on a more profitable basis. From a personnel as well as IT basis, such a transfer presents a real challenge for your firm, which will not only have to rely upon (and effectively manage) a third party’s IT staff, but also manage your own retained IT personnel.
To make the MSP model work for you requires a subtle knowledge of both core IS and people management skills. You may well find that while acquiring the IS capabilities is complex, cracking the technical problems are more straightforward than managing both the external and internal staff required to make a managed service work for you.
Simon Walsh, Director of Client Services at Computacenter, explains what this could mean for companies like yours. “It’s a whole new skill set and many IT managers simply don’t have the skills required to manage a service provider,” he says.
Before engaging any service provider it is vital to have a good understanding of your company’s business goals. It’s always more effective to ask a service provider to help you increase sales rather than simply ask them to provide you with a managed web server and e-commerce application; you should remain as technology ‘agnostic’ as possible when drawing up your contracts.
The key to successfully running a managed service lies in acquiring new business and commercial skills, says Walsh. “If your company is to get the best results from a managed service, the person responsible for that relationship needs to have business planning skills, relationship management skills and – perhaps least important of all – technical skills.”
In short, look at the ultimate deliverable. “Confusion over what exactly your expectations are is the single most common problem in managed service relationships,” says Walsh. “There’s no point expecting a managed service to deliver the cheapest service if that isn’t what you asked for.”
You should ensure you have solid business systems management skills in place when using a managed service. This includes planning, analysis, decision making and a big chunk of business knowledge.
That will ensure you can drive the IT service so it is closely aligned with the business. It is arguable that next on the list of core skills required to align the managed service to your business, after a good understanding of business strategy, is to ensure your company’s retained personnel are in a position to effectively manage the contract. During contract negotiations it is easy for vendors to let potential customers assume the best, admits Robin Skinner, chief technical officer at Aspective, a provider of managed customer relationship management and email applications.
“It’s tempting, but you have to be very clear upfront about where lines will be drawn,” he says. “It’s impossible to define what happens in every scenario, but you should at least have some basic principles about who is responsible for what systems and processes.”
Effective contract management includes dispute resolution, planning and performance management. Your managers should be able to negotiate contracts that clearly identify what service is expected, how it will be measured, and what will happen if those commitments aren’t met. Remember, also, that a typical managed service contract will cover a period of three or five years. During that time your priorities will change and a contract should be able to accommodate those changes, without either party having to resort to expensive legal remedies. A common mistake is to assume that a friendly relationship with your MSP will automatically overcome problems in these areas, says Ivor Canavan, vice-president of EMEA at services company CSC. “Relying on a relationship rather than a contract puts pressure on that relationship,” he says.
Business skills take priority over technical knowledge because an MSP is delivering an outcome, not a process, says Alan Rodger, research analyst with Butler Group. “The business cares about having high levels of uptime at a lower cost, not whether the supplier is using Widget 4.1 to achieve that saving,” Rodger says. However, it is important to retain some technical expertise within the company, Rodger says. A good understanding of the overall IT strategy means you’re less likely to be persuaded to spend lots of money on a new product that doesn’t fit your overall approach, he says.
When property developer Business Homes invested in a managed email and security service, group accountant Henry Sarnill made an effort to learn more about the technology involved. “I think it’s important because if you don’t know what’s out there it’s like going to a restaurant and not being able to read the menu,” he says. “It also helps because if something goes wrong –like the ISP goes down – we understand the technical limitations of the service, and don’t blame MessageLabs.”
You also have to ensure that your retained staff feel motivated to do a crucial job. In a recent article in Computer Weekly looking at its outsourced set-up, Sainsbury’s chief information officer Maggie Miller revealed that in order to allow its managed services to help the company keep pace in a changing business environment it has had a top-to-toe overhaul, designed to keep both the retained and outsourced IT teams highly motivated. The aim was to ensure retained staff don’t feel that they have become glorified contract monitors and invoice checkers. She said that keeping her team of 25 in-house IT staff motivated when IT has been outsourced made Sainsbury’s one of the best places to work.
Ensuring that your staff feel comfortable about the move is part of making sure the transfer runs smoothly and the resulting service meets your expectations. Successfully handling staff demands a high level of communication and sensitivity. In some cases you may want to involve staff early in the process, sometimes presenting employee representatives with a short list of companies to work with. Says Simon Walsh: “It’s not for everyone, but it can be worth asking staff, if all else was equal, who they would rather work for?”