Outsourcing works well in many areas of business activity, but I want to sound a note of caution. In fact, when I hear about companies taking their network management operations out of the safe hands of their experienced and committed in-house engineers and handing it to external providers, my blood runs cold.
Unfortunately, business owners and directors often focus too closely on the savings promised by network management outsourcing, while seriously underestimating the importance and value of reliability in their organisations' IT networks, and the enormous damage that failures can cause.
Network downtime: a company-killer
"I can't get web access and I can't check my emails. I might as well go home." It's a common complaint in today's office, and it illustrates how dependent we have become on our company networks.
Ten years ago we would simply have turned to the phone and fax. For years, though, IT networks have been becoming steadily more important to companies of all types and sizes and for most organisations they are now absolutely key to all day-to-day operations. Downtime can mean service disruption, dissatisfied customers, irritated staff, regulatory compliance failure, and significant financial loss.
Company networks are no longer just important pieces of infrastructure. They have gone far beyond that. Today, a company's network is its central nervous system. If it fails, the company is paralysed. If normal service isn't restored quickly, the company dies. It's that simple, and it's that important.
PR fallout: it's not pretty
In today's online world, news – bad news, in particular - spreads brutally fast. If a major company's network is down for even a few hours, we hear about it from bloggers, or even the media, almost immediately.
The longer the interruption to normal service persists, the more widespread is the bad publicity, the more serious the PR damage and the more customers who will simply go elsewhere, often permanently. Even if they don't result directly in company failure, network outages do serious damage to company reputations.
Downtime is not the minor inconvenience it once was. It's not just a matter of not being able to check emails or browse websites. It's a potential company-killer.
Protecting your network
In-house engineers' jobs depend directly on their ability and commitment to maintain the company network in good order. That accountability for problems, poor performance and downtime is highly motivating, keeping the company's interests at the top of their priority list: they will care far more deeply about the company's success than any external specialist ever will. As a result they are the company's best option to get the job done right, keep the network working effectively and efficiently, and rectify faults that do arise in short order.
Conversely, handing over responsibility for the ongoing management and maintenance of the network to unknown and untested individuals with no direct interest in the company's well-being significantly increases the danger of network downtime, and the damage it inevitably causes.
Think before you outsource
For businesses with in-house engineering resources, the temptation to cut costs by outsourcing should therefore generally be avoided.
That's not to say that outsourcing is never the right option. Many businesses don't have the resources at their disposal to effectively manage and maintain their networks. For such businesses, outsourced network management can be invaluable. But even in such cases, the business should employ at least a few engineers to work with the external team, acting as its eyes and ears, ensuring that the goals of the outsourcing exercise are actually delivered.
Businesses with skilled engineers on the payroll, though, have an enormous advantage. Those engineers are the best protection possible against costly, damaging, and potentially fatal network failures.
Think – very carefully – before outsourcing.