History is filled with stories of seemingly great partnerships gone bad. After leading Roman slaves in a revolt that resulted in their freedom, Spartacus and Crixus argued on what to do next and parted company with their individual followers. Both were subsequently destroyed by the Roman Legions, one at a time.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote many songs together that made The Beatles the most successful musical act in history. Eventually, though, they went through a very ugly, public breakup and for a while used their prodigious talents to write songs attacking one another. Moving to the technology realm, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin co-founded a little social network called Facebook in their Harvard dorm and – well, you’ve no doubt seen the movie or read the articles about it.
The point is, in these instances and hundreds more, both participants started out with the same goals. Somewhere along the way, however, they came to disagree on the direction and a once-great partnership turned into conflict.
That risk exists with any partnership – including the hiring of a managed services provider (MSP) to augment your IT staff’s capabilities. It doesn’t have to end up in a public flame-out with all the warts shown in a wildly successful movie, though, so long as you prepare your organization properly. Following are some suggestions to ensure your partnership is a long and happy one.
Start by defining the sourcing strategy – A great partnership begins with both sides understanding what needs to be included in the scope of work. This initial step is about more than service level agreements (SLAs). It requires clearly defining what the MSP is responsible for, and the things for which your company is responsible. That sounds obvious, but it’s far from simple. All too often these partnerships go wrong because it’s assumed that the MSP will handle this, or your IT staff will handle that, and in the end no one handles it. That’s when finger-pointing starts.
You also want to be sure you spell out what the business is trying to accomplish, not just from a technology standpoint but overall. By understanding this context, the MSP may be able to make recommendations that support the business strategy beyond what you are doing currently. It is often helpful to obtain an outside perspective, not to mention gain insights into what other organizations are doing to address similar issues; a good MSP can provide both.
Once you have all that information, everything should be spelled out in great detail. By clearly defining roles, responsibilities, processes, business goals, etc., and making sure both sides understand and agree to them, the MSP can develop a contract that accurately reflects what you need from them and deliver its services at those levels.
Understand the state of your environment – What technology do you have today? Is it current? Is it sorely in need of an upgrade? How well do individual components match up with one another? If you do upgrade, what effect will that have on your operation? Will it simplify things or add a level of complication? The answers to those and similar questions can have a profound effect on the success of the transition.
This is an area in which you may want to involve an MSP. You can have them perform a complete assessment of your current technology, how it matches up to industry standards, and whether it aligns with your business goals. Having the MSP perform this assessment will keep your resources free for more mission-critical work. It also allows you take advantage of their experience to see where your environment is relative to similar-sized organizations. If this is to be a preliminary step that is not a guarantee of moving forward with them on the project, be sure that’s made clear up-front. Most MSPs will be willing to perform this work as a separate, paid project
Once you have the assessment completed (whether you did it internally or had an MSP do it), you will have a better understanding of how much work is required and how long the process will take. This information will be helpful in setting timelines, establishing realistic roles and responsibilities, scheduling outages (if necessary) and preparing your organization for the transition.
Another area to think about when bringing on an MSP is the people side of IT. You no doubt are well-aware of any personnel shortages or skills gaps you have within your IT organization. You’ll want to see whether the MSP has the expertise and bench strength to cover those areas, either on a temporary or permanent basis. After all, with an MSP on-board there may be some responsibilities your organization can hand off for good, allowing you to focus your limited resources on higher-value projects that elevate IT’s visibility and standing within the business.
If you’ve had problems with training or retaining IT staff, you’ll want to anticipate making arrangements with the MSP to cover areas outside the normal scope of work from time to time. Here again you’ll want to spell out how much is covered by the scope, when additional costs kick in (is it by hours, type of work or some other factor) and what those costs are. What about hours of coverage? The typical engagement has the MSP providing 24×7 service. If you have other ideas, be sure that’s spelled out.
The more precisely you can see and articulate your current environment, the better job the MSP can do on developing the contract. It will also help enable them make useful recommendations to improve it down the road.
Confirm communications procedures – There’s no faster route to failure than not agreeing on how communications between your organization and the MSP will work. Be sure both sides understand the format and frequency for status updates. Also be sure you have a robust feedback mechanism to ensure that little annoyances don’t escalate into serious issues through some type of misunderstanding.
Keep requirements reasonable – Depending upon your current situation, you may find your MSP is able to respond to certain requests faster than your internal organization might have been, either due to having deeper expertise or as a result of the additional bandwidth they bring.
It’s important to set priorities within the organization early, so the MSP has guidelines to follow that ensure what you’re asking can be reasonably accomplished in the timeframe, and within the budget, to which you are agreeing.
For example, you may write timelines into the contract that require the MSP to take action within certain parameters. In planning the overall timetable you have to keep in mind how long it takes your organization to provide approvals, and ensure the MSP is aware of it as well. If you don’t factor that part in, activities will likely show up as “overdue” sooner or later. That leads to unnecessary frustration and can make both the MSP and your organization look as if they are underperforming, or working together poorly, when it’s merely a misaligned expectation. Be realistic in setting requirements and both the transition and long-term operations will be much smoother.
Then there are the inevitable changes. While some MSPs don’t place limits on changes others do. If you typically have 20 changes per month but the contract specifies a maximum of 10, the additional, unplanned-for charges may add up quickly and the relationship will likely go sour just as quickly. Also, does your environment require all changes to be handled as they come up, or can they be batched on a regular basis such as weekly? Changes are an area that often causes friction so be sure you agree on how they will be handled before signing anything.
View your MSP as a partner – We’ve all seen examples of business leaders and managers who get it into their heads that they are doing their own organization a disservice if they don’t “beat down” the other firm in price or service negotiations. However, that is not the best path to a good working relationship.
Sure, obtaining competitive pricing is an important consideration. But the real business value in a partnership comes through being able to accomplish things together that you couldn’t have done separately. By himself, Spartacus likely would have been just another gladiator who perished in the arena. Neither Lennon nor McCartney achieved the level of success as solo songwriters they did as a team; in fact, much of their later work was forgettable. While Facebook was a pretty big accomplishment, what has Zuckerberg or Saverin achieved since then that can compare?
Getting to that value point requires a real commitment to the partnership on both sides. If you bring in an MSP that invests its time and resources in understanding your business and building its knowledge base about it (rather than simply providing commodity services), you’ll be far more satisfied with the results.
A good way to build that partnership more quickly is by helping the MSP learn your culture and how to work within it. Are there certain ways documentation or verbal reports need to be presented? Is the culture formal and businesslike, or more casual and relaxed? Are there any potential language barriers that may need to be addressed?
In the end, it’s all about building trust. Because the more both sides trust each other, and believe they are working together for a common goal, the more willing they will be to collaborate in an open and honest way. And the better the ultimate results will be.
Get your internal team on board – The minute you mention bringing in an MSP, you may run into resistance from your internal IT team. Some may see the MSP as a threat to their jobs, while others may wonder if the MSP will now be dictating to them. Be sure they understand that your purpose in engaging the MSP is to take tedious work off their hands so they can focus on work that will actually add value to the business and enhance their careers. If you paint the vision of what it will do for them, it will help ease the tensions and ensure a smoother, more cooperative atmosphere.
Many partnerships begin with the short-term mission of solving some specific issue or achieving a particular goal – free yourselves from the Romans, become the biggest band in the world, build the ultimate social network. Or in your case, address your most pressing business concerns. But in order for that partnership to endure, grow and accomplish all the things of which it’s capable, it’s important to invest the time up-front in working through the details and nuances of how it will operate.
If you make that investment, you’ll likely see the benefits of the partnership grow beyond your original vision and continuously create greater value for your organization.
Siobhan Byron is the vice president of managed services for Forsythe, a North American IT infrastructure integrator headquartered outside Chicago with locations across the U.S. and Canada. She can be reached at [email protected].