Selecting the right IT partner is critical to success.– By Chris Maclean, Maclean Computing, CEO. Ask Rob Fyfe of Air New Zealand what happens when IT systems are down and it’s likely he’ll be able to quantify it in dollar terms (big ones). Similarly, managing partners or general managers in most professional services firms can tell you what an hour or a day’s downtime is worth. Yet outside of these industries, it remains surprisingly rare that businesses can tell you the cost of downtime. And so it comes as no surprise that many businesses still think of IT as a cost rather than an investment. Even more surprising is that almost all businesses go to some lengths to prevent damage from fire and theft, but fail to adequately protect themselves from the much more likely scenario of data loss through the relatively common threats of faulty equipment, corrupted software and administrative error.Clearly there are many things that make up a safe IT environment, and all are important. Running your business on unwarranted hardware or unsupported software is asking for trouble, but of all the influences on a harmonious IT environment, the people who look after it probably have the greatest ability to make or break it. Even the largest New Zealand companies rely on external IT support to supplement their internal teams – it simply doesn’t make fiscal sense to own enough skill in-house for the many aspects of IT. So if you choose to outsource your IT support and maintenance, either in full, or to supplement an internal team, what should you look for to ensure they will be a great fit for your business?PedigreeYou’re trusting one of your most valuable business assets to a third party – it makes sense to check out that third party’s experience and reputation. Ask contending suppliers to introduce you to companies that are similar to you in terms of size, geographic diversity and industry so you can gain confidence in their ability to do a great job for you. Look for vendor qualifications – Microsoft, HP, IBM, et al. All have reseller accreditation programmes. Does the IT partner you like the look of have all the relevant qualifications to implement the solution they are proposing?Cultural fitSize is important. It’s hard getting big companies to respond to relatively small customers in ways that meet their requirements for responsiveness, intimacy and flexibility. Similarly, asking a small IT partner to take on the risks and complexity of very large businesses is equally fraught with challenges. Find a partner that feels right size-wise, and the partnership will run much more smoothly in all interactions – from sales, through support to finance. As a rule of thumb, consider a 1:5 ratio. If a partner has 50 people, they’re likely to have the skills and processes in place to do a great job for customers with between 50 and 250 employees. Beyond that, they’ll be stretched beyond their comfort zone and cracks may begin to appear. Below that, and they’ll probably be less responsive or flexible than you require, particularly as you’ll be a small fish in their relatively big pond.Complementary skillsIf you have your own IT staff, it’s logical to fully utilise them within their skill-set. Look for a partner who will encourage your own staff’s participation where appropriate. Your staff will appreciate the opportunity to learn within the context of your environment and you’ll end up with someone in-house who understands a little more about your systems.Shared riskThe ideal IT partner should be almost as interested in your systems’ uptime as you are. Unless you’re a large company looking for (and prepared to pay for) a full outsourcing arrangement, you’re unlikely to be able to share the true and full risk of downtime such as an unproductive workforce, brand reputation, and lost sales. However, good compromises exist in the small to medium market where good IT partners will take a bigger stake in your uptime via fixed-price service contracts and have a vested interest in resolving issues promptly. In essence, you pay a fixed amount for the support and maintenance of your IT assets no matter how much or how little time is spent on them. That way, the cost of downtime isn’t exacerbated by big IT bills. Even more interestingly, is that this vested interest focuses the minds of those taking the risks. Chances are, it’ll be so important for your IT partner to avoid downtime altogether that you’ll both win.FocusConsider the pros and cons of single-sourcing your IT requirements versus best-of-breed multi-sourcing. Single-sourcing has its benefits in terms of rationalising your supplier relationships and avoiding finger-pointing exercises should projects not go to plan. Multi-sourcing gives you the flexibility to choose the best provider for each core component of your IT landscape, potentially giving you a better end result if the partners can work well together.It needn’t be a plethora of partners involved. If you choose well, a single supplier could look after all your IT foundations, such as your network, servers, storage, desktops, IP phone system, and common software like Microsoft Exchange and server software. A second company that specialises in client management software for your industry can then manage these line-of-business applications. Between them, you have the best possible result: industry specialism where it counts (the application layer) and, if they have formalised a partnership, hassle-free multi-sourcing.TrustLike any good partnership, trust is the key to its success. Choose a partner you can trust your business plans to. If they can understand those, they will be in a better position to provide you with good, long-term technology advice. Is a central server with thin clients the best architecture, or is a mobile workforce using laptops with instant messaging and telephony-on-the-laptop likely to hold more business value? A good partner can help guide you through these decisions and if done well, add real value to your business.