Author: Yogi Schulz

Who are you gonna trust?  When the computers in your office aren’t working well, you reach out for help. Every computer consultant you invite into your office tells you a different story. The various stories don’t line up. Many of the recommendations contradict each other. Some of the recommendations just about give you a heart attack. The different cost estimates to solve the problem vary by a factor of ten.

With the advent of the Internet, computers have become essential to the conduct of business. Keeping all the applications and computers functioning smoothly, without spending a fortune, has become important to the success of most organizations. Here are some ideas for addressing the challenge.

Widely Varying Consultants

The computer consultants that you invite to advise you will come from widely different backgrounds. Some work with large organizations, measured in number of employees, while others work with much smaller companies. The size of the organization greatly influences how information technology is implemented and therefore the thinking of its consultants. Pick a consultant whose track record is predominantly with organizations of a similar size to your own.

Consultants vary widely in their capabilities. Most know enough about all aspects of information technology to be dangerous outside of their core competency. The major areas of competency are strategy, business process, applications and infrastructure. Pick a consultant whose core competency aligns best with your problem area.

Give preference to consultants who have other customers in your industry. Industry knowledge is helpful because you will spend less time explaining your business. Similarly, select consultants who have experience with the applications and the software technologies you are using. For example, some consultants have more expertise with Microsoft development tools and software. Others are more conversant with IBM and Oracle software for the UNIX arena.

Varying Contracting Practices

It’s tempting to hire consultants for a fixed price fee. The fixed fee creates a tremendous incentive for the consultant to deliver on time and under budget. Experience suggests however, that it’s almost impossible to accurately predict what the fair fixed price really is. Usually fixed price fees are set too low. As a result, the consultant is most likely to either declare an incomplete job complete or ask for more money later through a change order. Either of these outcomes creates lots of frustration for you the customer.

The challenge in hiring consultants at an hourly rate is that it creates an incentive to drag out solving the problem. The optimum approach is to hire the consultant for a fixed price for each phase of the work. At the end of each phase, the consultant should understand the next phase well enough to produce an accurate estimate that can be the basis for a win-win contract. If you become uncomfortable, you can bail out between phases without wasting all of the investment to that point.

Hiring consultants by the hour, on-call, for infrastructure support will be unsuccessful. When you need them, they won’t be available as quickly as you want because you’re not an important customer. You’re better off to sign a contract for a specific minimum number of hours per month. That way you’ll receive better service, become a valued customer and in most cases, won’t spend any more money than under the on-call approach.

Don’t expect the firm, from whom you bought your computers, to provide after-sales support for free. The margins on computers are too low for this approach to work no matter what sky-high expectations the computer salesman may have created.

Setting the Investment Level

Determining how much to invest in your applications and your computing infrastructure is not easy or obvious. If you’re frustrated that the applications are buggy or are too limited in their functionality, that the computers are down too often or that performance is too slow, then you have under-invested.

The key determinant of how much to invest is your expectation of availability. If your applications and computers have to be available around the clock, weekends included, you will need to buy extra capacity and redundancy. If you only need the computers during normal working hours in one time zone, then a lower investment level will suffice.

For example, your web site requires high availability because surfers from anywhere in the world will want to access it at all hours. Here the best approach is to sign up for a hosting service rather than maintain the web site on an in-house server that already performs other tasks. If your web application must check other applications for pricing data or inventory status, for example, then you need high availability on the other servers as well.