As information technology becomes more pivotal to the day-to-day operations of law firms of all sizes, it has also become imperative that firms optimize the availability and performance of their IT in order to gain the greatest economic value from these investments. Even more importantly, it is critical that they minimize the risk of any IT failures, which could adversely impact their business.
This IT management challenge can be particularly daunting for the small-to-midsized firm (SMF) that typically lacks enough in-house skills and resources to systematically manage today’s technologies and business applications. Many SMFs feel as if they are not getting the return on their IT investment they expected and are often at the mercy of their IT rather than fully leveraging it to achieve their organizational objectives. And at a time when many SMFs are facing stiff budgetary constraints, a growing number of law firms are looking for a new way to satisfy their IT requirements and reduce their day-to-day IT management costs.
Managed IT Services has become an increasingly attractive “out-tasking” alternative to traditional outsourcing for many SMFs. Managed services enable the SMF to assign specific IT management responsibilities to the IT service company and relinquish either partial or total control of their IT operations. Managed-services providers (MSPs) continuously monitor and proactively manage an organization’s IT environment to address potential problems before they can disrupt their operations. In fact, they can also optimize the performance of end-users’ systems to allow them to do their jobs better.
Why Managing IT Can Be a Frustrating Task for SMFs
Although the computing needs of SMFs may seem less complicated than the IT issues facing large firms, IT complexity is still a major challenge for SMFs. System failures are more commonplace in many SMFs because these organizations typically lack the in-house skills and resources to implement essential management tools and perform routine management tasks. In addition, the threat of computer viruses, spyware, malware and other security attacks is now an ongoing concern.
As a result, many SMFs spend more time reacting to IT problems rather than fully leveraging the power of their IT investments to meet their firm’s business objectives. For instance, many SMFs unintentionally overload their servers, causing crashes that often lead to disruptions to their businesses and valuable data being lost.
Even when their IT systems and business applications are up and running, SMFs are not sure if they are getting the best performance out of these critical resources or the best return on investment. For example, for as many firms that overload their servers, there are just as many SMFs that under utilize their servers, creating unnecessary added expense and effort buying, installing and maintaining excess equipment and software. SMFs in many cases may be only generating 10 to 30 percent utilization from their servers but don’t know it because the equipment is poorly configured, translating into a poor ROI for this pivotal technology.
Many SMFs are unable to monitor and measure the performance of their systems around the clock because of a lack of appropriate management software or staff skills. As a result, they miss key indicators that would enable them to proactively manage their systems and prevent potential problems and costly downtime.
Rectifying this IT management issue isn’t easy. An SMF must not only have the skilled in-house staff who can select and deploy the right IT management software but also have sufficient IT staff to properly configure and monitor the management solution around the clock to meet the SMF needs. In addition, while many IT professionals are good at installing hardware systems and common business applications, it is unreasonable to expect them to also have the time, know-how and dedication to evaluate IT trend data that can uncover potential issues before they become real problems.
SMFs also face higher turnover among their IT personnel than larger organizations where there are more career opportunities. Because IT personnel within SMFs also have less time to document their work, staff turnover can make it difficult for new staff to become acclimated quickly. The discontinuity in IT staff makes SMFs more vulnerable to system failures or security threats.
In the past, SMFs would compensate for their IT inefficiencies by looking for outside help from two sources:
• IT contractors to handle their IT issues on a part-time basis; and
• IT service companies to address specific systems and software
Neither of these alternatives can fully address an SMF’s IT needs. Individual IT contractors lack the breadth of knowledge, experience and time to handle a SMF’s end-to-end IT requirements. Traditional IT service companies focus on specific products or applications, and generally react to problems rather than proactively managing their customers’ IT operations on an ongoing basis to make sure they are performing properly.
Because of the shortcomings of IT contractors and traditional service companies, a growing number of SMFs are investigating managed services as a strategic sourcing alternative.
Defining Managed Services
Strategic-consulting-services company THINKstrategies defines managed services as the ongoing, automated and remote management of computing resources and business applications to ensure their continuous availability, optimal performance and maximum security.
Unlike traditional maintenance agreements that are product-specific and reactive in nature, MSPs assume responsibility for proactively managing multivendor hardware systems, software applications and network infrastructures to prevent downtime and increase IT effectiveness.
Managed services permit SMFs to rely on the management skills and experience of the MSPs’ staff and centralized systems to meet their evolving IT management requirements so the SMFs can focus on their core business the practice of law.
While managed services might sound like a simple concept, it requires three key components to be successful: the right technology, the right people and the right processes.
Managed Services Technologies
Unlike traditional vendors and value-added resellers that focus on fixing specific technology problems when they arise, MSPs rely on a set of sophisticated on- and off-site technologies to deliver continuous, proactive management of the customer’s operations. These technologies include:
• Network and systems management tools to monitor hardware utilization levels and identify potential issues before they become real problems.
• Performance management tools to effectively measure network, system and software performance to determine whether it is appropriate to reconfigure the environment to meet the firm’s business needs.
• Software distribution tools to automatically update operating systems and applications to ensure proper patch management for security and compliance purposes.
• Remote diagnostic tools to more quickly perform system and software analyses, and initiate self-healing techniques to minimize downtime.
• Security and malware protection tools.
• Backup/restore tools.
Few SMFs can afford to acquire all of these management technologies to effectively watchdog their IT environments on a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week basis.
It is equally important to note that most MSPs not only manage their customers’ IT environments but also recommend and help to implement new systems and applications to ensure the customers’ IT operations are properly equipped and configured to meet their business objectives.
Managed Services People
Even if an SMF could afford to buy all the management technologies necessary to effectively oversee its IT environment, it must also have the in-house skills and experience to select, install and administer these technologies to properly manage its IT operations.
Few SMFs can afford to build a staff of desktop, network, server, storage, security and messaging experts. It also takes more than just a set of specialists to properly manage an IT environment. It requires an experienced and coordinated staff to monitor and analyze network, system and application traffic patterns on a continuous basis to ensure optimum performance and prevent potential problems.
Managed Services Processes
In addition to having the right management systems and staff, it is essential to implement the management processes to perform a series of tasks on a continuous basis to reduce the risk of unanticipated downtime and improve the performance of IT operations. The procedural disciplines include scheduled software updates, hardware reconfigurations, security testing, system and storage backup, and network performance monitoring.
MSPs utilize management systems and employ skilled personnel who can perform these tasks in an automated and ongoing basis. Their experienced staff and sophisticated service-delivery systems leverage a structured set of technology deployment and ongoing management procedures that ensure the smooth implementation and optimized performance of an IT environment.
In sum, full-service MSPs have made a significant investment in centralized monitoring, rapid problem identification and tracking, and automated customer relationship management and reporting systems, which the MSPs’ skilled and experienced staff can leverage to provide multilayer support to their customers.
An Effective Method
As small and medium-sized firms become more dependent on IT systems and business applications to perform their day-to-day operations, they become less tolerant of IT downtime and hassles of managing their IT environments. In fact, SMFs are becoming increasingly frustrated trying to satisfy their technology needs and are willing to engage a full-service managed-services provider to manage their IT operations so they can refocus on their core business practicing law.
Managed services have become an effective method of alleviating the hassles and gaining the full business benefits from IT by producing improved performance, greater worker productivity and higher ROI. As a result, a growing number of small to midsized firms are turning to managed-services providers to satisfy their IT requirements.
Jeffrey M. Kaplan is managing director of THINKstrategies Inc. and the founder of the Software-as-a-Service and Managed Services Showplaces. For more information, visit Thinkstrategies.com; Msp-showplace.com; Saas-showplace.com; or Thinkitservices.blogspot.com. Contact Kaplan at 781-431-2690 or [email protected].
Edward J. Grubb is general manager, legal managed services, of mindSHIFT Technologies Inc., a provider of managed IT services, software-as-a-service, VoIP, compliance, e-business application development and professional services to small and medium-sized organizations. Contact Grubb at 215-702-3800 or at [email protected].