Pressure on housing associations for cost-effective services and regulatory compliance, and the consequent demand for more effective ICT, has led many housing associations to consider outsourcing all or part of their ICT to a managed service provider.
Historically this choice has been seen in terms of cost saving, but increasingly the breadth and depth of skills required for effective ICT makes it difficult to obtain and keep the various skills in-house. A good managed service provider can provide these skilled resources cost effectively but there are risks; loss of control and a reliance on ‘outsiders’ ignorant of industry applications and culture are typically seen as the main dangers.
However, almost all organisations have regularly outsourced specialist skilled activities, such as legal advice and accounting. Your organisation’s experience of selecting and working with its existing external suppliers of specialist services can help to guide your ICT outsourcing decisions.
Perhaps the most important question to ask about potential suppliers is ‘do we trust these people?’ Not only the salespeople, but everybody you meet throughout your potential supplier’s organisation. The really important moments in your future relationship will be when the unexpected happens and you are dependent on your supplier to solve the problem.
The next question should address their experience of housing associations and not-for-profit organisations. While most IT applications and infrastructures have more elements in common than significant differences (and the supplier should have methodologies and processes for rapidly learning the differences), an understanding of housing associations’ ethos and constraints is also very important.
Finally, the question of ‘what do we really want?’ Obviously this should be covered before you talk to potential outsourcers, but never forget that you can learn from them during initial discussions and the contractual negotiation process, to the extent that if you don’t learn from them then they are unlikely to be right for you.
Having selected a supplier, you must then contract with them. Here there are two important issues; the first is that nothing is for nothing – you will only get what you are willing to pay for.
The second is that your requirements will change over time – so set your requirements in terms of objectives not processes, and have some mutually-agreed change mechanism. Again, mutual trust and respect is vital; not only should the supplier behave in a trustworthy manner but so should you and other members of your organisation.
Given these guidelines, and a realistic and open relationship with a carefully-selected supplier, there is no reason why outsourcing all or part of your ICT should be anything other than successful, while you remain in control of your organisation’s ICT strategy and performance.
Jenny Williams retired recently as corporate services director of Hanover Housing Group and advises ServiceTec.