FRAMINGHAM (04/18/2000) - As technology becomes more complicated, systems integration gets tougher. You can choose to do it yourself and spend months to fully deploy a new application or system. Or you can hire a professional services group to set up the system for you and get your company a quicker and possibly higher return on the technology investment.
I can think of at least three instances when it makes sense to invest in hiring a professional services firm when faced with a complex implementation:
Your company is struggling with the task at hand, perhaps due to lack of in-house expertise or insufficient time to devote to the project.
You have a short implementation period and can't spare the time getting staff members up to speed to do the work themselves.
You want the benefit of knowledge transfer from the experts to your own people.
The third item is a very important point to consider when you are hiring outside consultants to do the work for you. If you shy away from using consultants because you want to build up your own internal knowledge base, then insist on an in-depth knowledge transfer program as part of the service contract.
Part of this knowledge transfer should be in the form of comprehensive documentation that details the care and feeding of the new system. The other part of the process includes working with your own staff members and walking them through the whole implementation process. Ideally, this should take place as your staff works side by side with the consultants during the implementation, not just afterward. And for good measure, write into the contract your right to contact the consultants after the project if you have follow-up questions or concerns.
If you think it costs too much money to hire outsiders, then you should consider the value of time. Surprisingly, most IT managers undervalue the time spent by their own employees to undertake an extensive new implementation.
"We're already paying them" is the logic - "why should we pay for consultants, too?"
Well, because you're already paying your staff to do everything else. In other words, this big implementation is probably coming on top of regular full-time duties, so your own folks wouldn't necessarily be totally devoted to the task at hand. This spreads the implementation out longer than necessary, and "time to value" is delayed. You don't get the value of your new system as quickly as you could, and you forfeit the benefits of the system during the time you drag out implementation. A dedicated professional services team is going to focus on the one task you hire them for and get your system into a productive environment quickly.
Having talked with IT managers who have hired service companies, I've condensed their hard-earned advice into some points that are worth remembering:
Before hiring your services firm, ask for references and check them out thoroughly, customer to customer.
If your implementation is a big one - say, installing a systems management framework - break up your project and the consulting contract into manageable phases. Phase one might be to install the base-level management software and get it working properly. Phase two might be to add a complementary product that does predictive analysis. Be sure each phase has a well-defined scope and well-defined value at the end of the assignment.
Stay in control of the engagement, and give your company the right to terminate at any time if the expected results aren't delivered in a timely fashion.
Consider including in the contract your right to accept or reject individuals assigned to your project. This keeps you from being stuck with a technically inadequate consultant.
Ask the consultants to explain their approach to the work and why this approach will benefit you. Be wary of "cookie-cutter" consultants who want to do everything in the same way, regardless of your specific needs.
Understand the consultants' biases up front. If they wear a vendor's badge - such as IBM Corp., BMC or Microsoft Corp. - their product biases may be obvious. But third-party consultants also have biases that could affect your implementation.
Sometimes it can be well worth paying for the expertise and outside perspective of a professional services company. In many cases, they can get your project off the ground and have you realizing the benefits of your new IT system sooner than you could by doing the work yourself.
Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company, a Houston technology assessment firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.