Should I build it or buy it? We face that question often – whether it’s furniture, clothes, a house, a building – there are many times when a DIY solution is more economical in the long run. Or an off-the-shelf or pre-built solution may be the right answer.
The same is true of IT service. Your business has the option to “build it” – hiring, training and managing an internal IT team. Or you can “buy it” – using an outsourced IT company or managed services provider (MSP) to manage your IT systems.
Both approaches have pros and cons. Depending on your business and its needs, one method is likely more appropriate than the other. Or, your business may benefit from a hybrid approach, where some roles are cared for by internal staff and others are outsourced.
At E-N Computers, we have helped businesses of all sizes benefit from all of these approaches to IT management. For some of our clients, we function as an all-in-one IT department, handling everything from help desk calls to infrastructure management. Other clients have an internal team handling the day-to-day, turning to us for guidance on IT strategy as well as second-level support. And still others insource their information management and business analysis, while we keep the systems and infrastructure running.
In this article, we’ll look at what it takes to build a top-quality IT department. Then we’ll look at how you can “buy” some or all of those functions by partnering with a managed IT service provider. Finally, we’ll help you to determine which approach is right for your business.
Should I Build or Buy an IT Department?
In the video below, see a quick overview of the costs and benefits of building vs. buying.
In addition to hiring, we’ll look at the procedures, tooling, and training that are necessary to build an efficient and well-run IT team.
IT Roles and Staffing
In a large IT department, there are more than a dozen unique roles that need to be staffed. Smaller IT teams usually combine these roles into just one or two positions, but this has its drawbacks. For example, it can be difficult for one person to be responsible for both day-to-day operations and project implementation. Oftentimes, the daily “fires” that crop up crowd out long-term strategic work that is necessary to keep up with advances in technology and changes in business needs.
Additionally, there are other administrative functions that can be neglected if not assigned to a dedicated role. Things like software licensing, hardware inventory, budgeting and forecasting, and resource monitoring are often viewed as “nice to haves”, but in reality are vital to strategic IT management.
So, while it’s tempting to search for a “jack-of-all-trades” IT engineer, we’ve found that IT teams are most effective when they are able to specialize at least somewhat. For example, a three-person IT team could be made up of a user support specialist, an infrastructure manager or systems engineer, and an IT director to manage them and make strategic IT decisions.
Building IT Procedures and Processes
Having the people to do the work is only part of building an IT department. For the work to get accomplished in an orderly manner, an IT team needs to build out repeatable and scalable processes and procedures, and then ensure that both the team and the rest of the company follow them.
Some areas that IT procedures should address include:
How should users request service from the IT department? (Phone, email, ticketing system, etc.)
How is issue priority determined? How are emergencies handled?
Do you have a service level agreement (SLA) with management and users – a goal to resolve most tickets within a certain timeframe? How is it measured and tracked?
What is your change management process? How are changes communicated to the rest of the company?
How are individual problems tracked so that broader issues and trends can be identified and handled?
Where do you securely keep current system documentation, passwords, and other critical information?
Many teams allow their procedures to grow organically. While that’s fine for smaller teams, when more than one or two people are involved, having strong, documented processes in place will create better IT outcomes for the entire company.
There are books and online resources that can help you to build your processes, for example The Practice of System and Network Administration, the many online resources on ITIL, or Google’s Site Reliability Engineering guide. Many organizations also choose to engage a consultant to help them build and document their processes. But ultimately, it’s up to IT and company leadership to develop and adopt procedures across the organization.
IT Department Tools and Software
As with any job, IT specialists can work much more efficiently when they’re provided with the proper tools. In the IT world, there are two types of tools: 1) tools that help the IT team do their job but have little direct visibility to end users, and 2) tools that end users know and may interface with such as antivirus, file storage, and backup systems.
Both types of tooling can be designed to work together. These include ticketing systems, hardware and software inventory databases, software deployment tools, remote monitoring and management (RMM) systems, and more. These tools can also be integrated with each other and with other systems. They can also be automated or scripted to varying degrees.
For example, an integrated ticketing and inventory system can automatically populate a trouble ticket with information from the user’s system. A well-configured RMM can automatically open and close tickets based on alerts generated from servers and network infrastructure. And automation can be used to make sure tickets don’t get stuck or missed by sending alerts about certain conditions.
Selecting, implementing, and maintaining IT management tools can itself be a full-time job. This leads many IT teams to neglect their tooling, in effect making their job harder than it needs to be. Proper tooling can also be expensive, especially for a small number of endpoints. But when set up properly, tooling can be scaled up relatively easily.
IT Management, Strategy, and Budget
Another large but often overlooked cost of building an IT department has to do with management and strategy. Without a clear picture of how IT needs to grow and evolve to meet the needs of the business, your team will find itself jumping from problem to problem applying band-aid fixes. Projects and critical upgrades can easily fall to the wayside unless someone is responsible for setting priorities – and the bandwidth to complete those projects is made available. Also, it can be hard to get a handle on the true costs of IT support in your business when they’re distributed across multiple cost centers and not unified on a single report.
For this reason, larger IT teams are usually headed by a Chief Technology Officer (CTO), who is responsible for setting IT strategy for the organization. Reporting to the CTO, an IT Director oversees the day-to-day operations of the IT team (smaller organizations may combine these roles). And many organizations are adopting techniques from the construction industry and hiring dedicated IT project managers to oversee the implementation of new processes and systems.
Smaller companies may lack the resources to hire dedicated IT management staff. But having good management to set a strategy and provide a liaison between IT and the rest of the business is a critical part of successful IT outcomes.
Building an IT Department: The Bottom Line
Building an organized, efficient IT team isn’t a trivial matter – but it’s not impossible, either. With the right management strategy, staffing, tooling, and procedures, an in-house IT department can provide outsized value to your company, especially as technology becomes increasingly important to businesses in every vertical.
But the honest truth is that most small-to-midsize companies – those under 250 employees or so – will find it difficult to find and dedicate the resources that it takes to build a fully insourced IT department. For most businesses of that size, compromises will need to be made that will prevent the IT team from providing the level of service that’s required in today’s business environment. To fill in these gaps, your business will want to consider outsourcing some or all IT functions to a third-party vendor.
Hiring IT staff is not the same as building and running an IT department… procedures, tooling, and training are necessary to build an efficient and well-run IT team.
How to Buy an IT Team with Outsourcing
Many small and medium-sized organizations have found that partnering with a trusted IT vendor helps them to achieve world-class IT outcomes on a much smaller budget than would be required to provide the same functions in-house. Managed IT service providers (MSPs) like E-N Computers provide IT solutions customized to your needs – whether you need a full IT department or help to fill in skill or knowledge gaps.
But not all outsourced IT companies and MSPs are created equal. Each one has different specialties, levels of service, and costs that you should understand before deciding on a solution. When selecting an IT vendor, consider how the MSP’s vision and strategy aligns with the needs of your business.
Break-fix vs. Managed Services
One major difference among IT service providers is how they approach the relationship as a whole. Many IT companies provide what can be described as break-fix service. They may work on a retainer basis, where you pre-pay for a set number of hours per month. While this may be less expensive than a full managed services plan, it can lead to important projects and preventative maintenance falling by the wayside. Additionally, it doesn’t address a lack of overall IT strategy and management – someone from your company will most likely need to take the lead in this.
By contrast, a managed IT services contract will encompass break-fix service, proactive monitoring and maintenance, and IT strategy provided by an account manager or fractional CTO. This approach can help you to control your IT spending and ensure that your systems are managed in a way that reduces problems and maximizes value to your business.
Evaluating IT Managed Service Providers
If you’re considering working with an MSP, you’ll want to make sure that the associated costs are justified by the value they provide. Since a managed services provider is basically a pre-built IT department, you can evaluate their service offering by using the same guidelines we listed in the “How to Build an IT Department” section above.
Some questions you may want to ask a potential MSP partner include:
What tooling and software do you use? Are there pass-through costs associated with those?
What’s your automation strategy?
What proactive monitoring is included with my plan?
How mature are your help desk processes? How do you determine issue priority and schedule work?
What can I expect as far as strategic consulting? Is this included in the cost?
These questions can help you to get a feel for the company’s overall process maturity, and the amount of value they will provide relative to their costs.
The Moneyball Approach to IT Outsourcing
In the book and film Moneyball, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane was able to build a high-quality baseball team on a limited budget by intelligently allocating the resources that he had. If you already have one or two dedicated IT staff, you can take the same approach to working with an MSP by focusing your internal resources on one critical area, while the outsourced provider handles the rest.
One strategy that several of our clients have found effective is to dedicate internal resources to managing the information stored in their systems, while allowing us to manage the systems themselves. This allows your in-house staff to focus on using data to streamline and grow your business, while the day-to-day operations, monitoring, and maintenance is cared for by your outsourced provider. For more details on this approach, read our article Should I Hire an IT Support Manager or a Business Analyst?
Another approach that our larger clients have used is to have an internal IT person handle front-line user issues, while we provide tier 2 support along with monitoring and IT strategy consulting. This method allows New Horizons Healthcare to provide top-quality support to more than 200 users with just one internal IT person. Be sure to check out the NHH Case Study PDF and video for more information.
Would you like to learn more about how to get world-class IT support for your business without world-class spending? Then check out these additional learning resources from E-N Computers to get started.
First, check out our article How Much Does IT Support Cost? In it, we break down the costs associated with both building an IT department and working with outsourced IT providers.
If you’d like to learn more about what’s involved in strategic IT hiring, read our guide How to Hire an IT Specialist. There you’ll learn about some techniques that will help you to attract top-tier IT talent, as well as some common pitfalls in the IT hiring process.
Finally, if you’d like to learn more about how our managed IT services can boost your business’s IT support, watch the New Horizons Healthcare case study or read it in PDF format. You’ll find out how we helped a 200-employee community health organization in Roanoke, VA get high-quality IT support while reducing their overall spend.
And if you’re ready to talk about how we can help your business with our managed IT services, contact us today using the contact form or the live chat button. We’d love to meet with you to discuss how we can build an IT solution that fits your needs and budget.