COMPUTER FORUM: Facts About Outsourcing Your Information System Management
In my last Computer Forum column, I sidestepped an issue that must have raised some red flags, or at least caused your eyes to roll. The issue was the need for a fundamental knowledge of database systems and data formats before automating the integration of information across the varied software programs you work with. Growing any business is a difficult task. Because keeping a competitive plastics business running properly most likely takes all your available time, finding the knowledge of data systems and acquiring it may be overwhelming tasks. Fortunately there is an alternative that could save you the need to do either of those without hiring a staff computer specialist.
Without an information systems management staff person, how do you administer the details of your company's critical information? With the availability on the Internet of small business system consultants, there is a solution readily available to you. All you need are the right connections, a little research and some time to develop a relationship with a small business management consultant. Finding and connecting with such a person or company can be done in number of ways, from telephoning the listings in the yellow pages to searching through the resources on the internet.
A quick, press-time, check of my favorite Internet search engine (AltaVista.com®,) using "small business systems" as the search phrase, brought up a total of 1,247 web pages in response. An inspection of the first couple of pages of references showed that about half of them might be just what you are looking for to manage your growing business system. The other half of the references were pretty easy to eliminate by their page title and the beginning of their content description. If that's not enough to figure out what they do, access their home page for a quick look at their listing. You won't be making any promises to them by just doing that.
There are several things to do when trying to determine if a consultant might be appropriate for your business. The first is to look at their qualifying statement for published limitations. For instance, one of the statements I examined said that the web page's consultant was interested in serving only the Charlotte, North Carolina area. If you are in Denver, Colorado, obviously that consultant is not going to be helpful. Another immediate consideration is any limit to a specialty they might service. An accounting or payroll only service is not going to help you manage your inventory, nor is a web page designer going to help your accountant deal with your receivables. There are considerations than I can get into here when screening the search listings that should tip you off to the lack of suitability of a consulting service, but you will know them when you see them. And, it should be obvious that you shouldn't stop looking for those limitations after you make your initial contact or leave the consultants web page. Sometimes a web page doesn't give a complete picture of capabilities so you will have to determine that through direct contact, either by e-mail or by phone.
When considering a consultant's compatibility with your business, find out how familiar they are with your existing software and hardware systems. That means, for starters, determining the size and complexity of the companies they deal with. Be sure to let them know the size and current state of development of your business. If nothing else, that will ease any initial consultation (what I call the creative input session) and may even alert you to possible future upgrade expectations for your system. You will want to prevent the major cost outlay of adapting your system to those the consultant is familiar with. Also, experience with your systems will make for easier glitch handling. Glitches will occur, as you probably already know, even without a consultant. Finally, with a consultant familiar with your system, crash management and system recovery become much more efficient. These are critical to minimizing your downtime when a crash does occur and will make recovery from the crash as quick and complete as possible.
You should also determine the consultant's ability to and comfort level with accessing your system remotely. With the state of the art today, there should be little need for on-site visits, except when major changes to the system warrant a close monitoring of the update progress. This can be accomplished in two ways: through direct access software that allows your system to talk directly with the consultants system, usually over telephone lines, or through Internet transfer of updates and fixes to a system.
Finally, determine their pricing rate structure or structures. There are several possible ways that a payment agreement can be done. The easiest, although not necessarily the least expensive arrangement, is through hourly charges. Remote access can be logged and on-site visits assigned to track your expenses for accurate billing. If you have a shorter-term or temporary arrangement in mind, a project-based agreement can be negotiated. If you are new to the use of consultants, this is usually a good way to determine what type of long-term arrangement to make for the future. A project-based agreement will usually work best when negotiated at the time of an upgrade to your system or when actions is a little slow and you are contemplating the next steps for your system's evolution. Finally, an annual or periodic retainer of services is another way to contract an outside consultant. This type of agreement will usually entail some limitations on how many hours of contact, either online or on-site, are automatically covered and what charge will be assessed for time overage. Because this is an up-front agreement, it is usually less expensive, but be realistic when determining how many hours of coverage you will need because overage on time can get expensive.
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