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IT managed service providers: Taking a measured approach

IT managed service providers, or MSPs, can help your organization tap into technologies you couldn't access otherwise, but how do you bring them into your team? Our CIO columnist explains.

A couple of years ago my son, an avid snowboarder, had an idea for a snowboard accessory. The idea was good enough that I, in my voluminous spare time, developed it into a product. As I write, we are about to produce the first batch of this product (by the way, if you work for a sports or outdoor retailer, please contact me).

From idea to design to prototype development to production, I have worked entirely via managed service providers (MSP). From design and tooling engineers to patent attorneys, I have yet to meet my MSPs in person. I know them by name, voice and email address. That is one of the wonders of the Internet age: An entire world is available to us.

As IT leaders, we have similar choices among IT services and IT managed service providers. We can tap into everything from network design, monitoring and management to outsourced email management to storage services -- all without leaving our desks.

When I look to vet potential IT managed service providers, I pay attention to two areas:

  • I check their references -- and, to avoid getting only the positive spin, I select and call references from their entire customer list.
  • I check under the hood of the technologies they are using, and make sure their internal systems consist of high-quality, industry-standard technologies.

Using outside IT managed service providers is not without its challenges, however.

First of all, I typically use IT MSPs to deliver things that are mission-critical to my enterprise, which means I have to select and manage them as well as I manage my own internal services. If my external email service goes down, my job is as much at risk as it would be if my internal email service failed.

Second, when I use IT managed service providers, the mechanics of how my services are managed are out of my sight. If their internal processes are haphazard or ad hoc, I might not know until I lose the service -- not an enviable position.

I've had problems in the past. In my first IT MSP arrangement, we both managed the relationship through the lens of our contract. There was no collaboration and no win-win thinking, and it took two long years of negotiations until I could cancel the arrangement.

To deal with the inevitable challenges, and by drawing on experience learned the hard way, I have realized a very important lesson that I now use to select and manage IT service providers. The lesson is this:

My IT managed service providers are an extension of my staff.

What does that mean in practice?

Most importantly, it means I want my IT MSPs to use our process for moving changes into production systems. I have refined this process over the years and found it eliminates the 70% of downtime that is self-inflicted. This process works so well to improve uptime that I want my IT managed service providers to use this process on the production systems they manage for me. And I want them to track their use of this process, just as I do.

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If I hold a staff meeting, I expect my IT managed service providers to participate. Not just to attend or call in but to participate, sharing learning experiences and honest questions that will help both sides uphold and thrive in the partnership.

I require my IT MSPs to adopt how we define and measure service levels. If it turns out they have a better way to do this, I adopt their approach. The important thing is that our measures are consistent and common.

Because my IT managed service providers are an extension of my staff, we work with them to define and implement a seamless escalation path. If there are issues with a service, whether theirs or mine, I want to tackle the issue as a team and avoid any finger-pointing. I have never seen finger-pointing solve an immediate problem or improve the underlying process.

When I treat my IT MSPs like members of my staff, good things happen. For example, I have outsourced portions of my network management. We treat the service provider's engineers like employees. We do our planning together. We keep an open line of communication every time we make a change to our network. We meet together with our telco providers.

This approach to IT managed service providers means I can tap into world-class, specialized technology resources while sleeping better and spending a lot less time searching through contract terms.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at

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