Escaping services addiction

Australian IT managers agree that it's all too easy to become addicted to consultants. It doesn't take very much encouragement for an army of consultants to set up camp in an enterprise and start "chilling and billing".

Pretty soon the consultants know more about the organization's applications than the IT shop and an unhealthy reliance grows on these service providers just to keep the business running. Next the consultants identify numerous, new, critical faults in the organization's IT infrastructure that must be addressed yesterday.

On the business side of IT, consultants are a must.

Many enterprises employ an IT contractor to analyze whether or not an internal IT shop is working towards the board's agenda while others employ contractors simply because they work.

As a third party, consultants have the luxury of seeing a project through to completion, unhindered by, and regardless of any internal emotional issues towards change management or the like.

Jason Corney, head of the service desk for Canberra University, believes consultants are often used to protect managerial backsides.

He admits consultants are more prevalent within the public service and are sometimes used as a stopgap solution to stem the fallout from an ill-fated project or to educate management on IT decisions.

"People out there largely use consultants as a backstop for when things go wrong and are addicted to protecting their own backside," Corney said.

"I think it is a cop out in a lot of cases, but if you are not qualified to make technical decisions it is wise to get a decision maker in; it's partly because IT managers nowadays are good managers, but don't know IT.

"More IT-centric people in management could make up the knowledge gap. Technology moves quickly and the luxury of using a consultant means they can pick the market trends."

Richard Norburn, IT manager for Sydney's Taronga Zoo isn't sure if enterprises get addicted to consultants for the right reasons.

Norburn believes one of the main reasons for such addiction is because senior management are business focused and don't always understand the technical detail.

"So they are happy to call in an independent consultant to ascertain if they are being fed correct information from their internal shop," he said. "The consultant might deliver the same report to the CIO as a strategy confirmation."

Norburn said consultants can be used to drive change in an unpopular project where staff are being made redundant.

"You need to put a face to that and while [ultimately] a consultant has a limited lifespan, which means the angst and anguish moves with them, they are a means to an ends," he said.

But their main use, Norburn said is to help management understand IT.

Also, he said, management doesn't always have faith in their staff and are happy to call in an independent consultant to confirm claims being made by their internal team.

"There is an awful lot of that in the industry as well as internal pressures on IT," he added.

One IT manager, who works in local government and requested anonymity, said internal budget constraints within government often force them to use consultants. "This is often due to a mixture of employment caps and lack of internal resources. But doing so comes with a huge cost," he said.

"Consultants definitely have their place, but the danger is that some organizations over use them to hide understaffing or IT shortages.

"In a lot of cases some projects sent to consultants could easily be done in-house, but the internal IT team has no resources to do the work and in cases like that consultants are paid between two and four times the appropriate amount because of the lack of available resources.

"Sometimes this works out to paying twice as much as giving the work to someone else."

But help is at hand; there is a 12-step program for just about everything, even an addiction to consultants.

As with all such programs, your first step is to . . .

1: Admit you have a problem

2: Make a fearless inventory of your company's needs

3: Don't let money already spent spook you

4: Limit your engagements

5: Seek out expertise

6: Keep a watchful eye, manage the consultants

7: Be prepared to buy your way out

8: Hire knowledge you need

9: Start with the end in sight -- include a "wean clause"

10: Marshal your resources

11: Ease off slowly

12: Give yourself over to a higher power -- your employees

- Dan Tynan

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