Don’t outsource everything. My better half won't like it!

I love my wife. I wouldn’t dream of letting anyone else take her out for a romantic dinner, for example. There are some things that you just do yourself. I'd imagine most people would feel the same.

OK. I admit it’s a thin analogy, but bear with me. I do those things for my wife, rather than having someone else do them, because she's important to me. Beyond your home life, your business ranks pretty high on the scale of relative importance – so why would you outsource all your IT and network management? In today's world, without your network and IT, you have no business. It really is that clear cut. You need to be absolutely sure your network is in the right hands: yours.

Outsourcing became something of a business mantra in the nineties and noughties. According to the accepted wisdom of the day, huge savings and dramatic improvements in productivity could be realised if 'non-core activities' were outsourced. Times have changed, though. Rapidly and brutally.

The cold light of day

Much of the last two decades has been characterised by ongoing economic boom, fuelled by plentiful and easily accessible finance. That boom came to a sudden end with the Credit Crunch and the resulting economic downturn. What we have now is the cold light of day, and that light has exposed some uncomfortable truths about IT outsourcing.

The principal reasons for outsourcing an IT network are to make financial savings and to bring in expertise that the network owner does not currently have. In today's climate, a re-think is needed on how much exactly should be outsourced, if outsourcing is the favoured option.

If you don't have the necessary skills in your business to manage your own network, you should bring those skills on board as quickly as possible. Any organisation that fails to learn new technologies and understand today's and tomorrow's Internet is storing up serious trouble for the near future. Web 2.0 and other emerging social networking technologies are here today and here to stay, and new security risks and other threats are arising on a daily basis.

On top of that, successful management of your network demands not only technical expertise, but a deep and continually updated understanding of what your business is all about and what it needs from its network, today and tomorrow. It's likely that any outsourced provider's understanding on this front is going to be weaker in various areas than that of your own people.

This gap in understanding, however small, makes almost any outsourcing of 'all and sundry' an enormous gamble. The Internet is awash with disaster stories testifying in gory detail to the results of such gambles, but what those stories don't always clearly show is that some of them could have worked, if only they hadn’t outsourced absolutely everything in the IT department.

Agility and responsiveness

The current economic challenges, which are impacting all businesses, do seem to be prompting a return to sanity on the outsourcing of company IT networks. This is excellent news, because if there was ever a field in which the age-old maxim "If you want a job doing properly, then do it yourself" applies, it's IT networking.

Key in today's commercial environment is the ability to make the right decisions swiftly. It's that ability that will enable businesses to get ahead and stay ahead. Bureaucracy, indecision and labyrinthine purchasing processes all belong to the last century, along with anything else that hinders a business' ability to act and react with speed and precision.

The need for agility and responsiveness alone rules out wholesale outsourcing of IT networks.

Decision making is inevitably slowed and made less effective, which in turn increases real costs for the organisation, as well as impairing its ability to respond to changing opportunities and threats. Additionally, outsourcing your entire network could mean dealing with your provider's administration team rather than a long in the tooth, hardened purchasing individual. With fixed discounts and pre-set ordering systems, little negotiation can occur and adaptability in the face of changing circumstances and requirements can be severely limited. Surely the days of blind agreement to long-term price structures are long gone?

Partial outsourcing

In many cases, organisations have outsourced their entire IT facility, only to find that, part of the way through the contract, there are such serious problems that the only solution is to bring the arrangement to an end, returning to in-house IT management. The costs and disruption resulting from such a catastrophe are enormous, with the wasted time alone typically running into thousands of man-hours.

I'm not saying that outsourcing is necessarily a complete no-go, although I would certainly recommend exceedingly careful assessment of all of the costs, risks, limitations and potential pitfalls of any contract before committing to it. What I am saying is that complete outsourcing should be a no-go. In almost all the cases in which an outsourcing contract has gone badly wrong, the damage would have been much less comprehensive, and staved off for a longer period of time, if only part of the IT function been outsourced.

Had more time and thought been spent identifying what really needed outsourcing and what didn't, the resulting arrangement could have been far more beneficial to the end user, and significantly longer-lasting. That would have pleased the provider, too, since outsourcing companies calculate risk and costs on the basis of contracts running their full term. And of course the chances of a valuable renewed outsourcing contract would have been increased.

Ten long years

One of our customers is half way through a ten year outsourcing contract, which covers everything from a state-of-the-art 10 gig switch router all the way through to desktop support. Ridiculously (but inevitably) the customer knows far more about the desktops than the outsourced provider does. With the recession biting hard, the customer's income has dropped, but of course the full standing charge must still be paid to the outsourced provider. With internally managed IT, the customer could have cut back or restructured their network, reducing costs and reconfiguring for a leaner operation, but with the outsourced contract, they can't even do that.

That's an extreme case, but it illustrates the issues. The message is clear: don't outsource unless you must, and then only outsource what you must. Never outsource your entire IT function. To enjoy real savings and maintain flexibility and agility, bring the skills you need into your business and manage your own network.

Think of your network as you think of anything else (or anyone else!) highly precious to you. Keep it close and take care of it yourself. Your business depends on it.