By Mike Bohlmann

Strategic IT is the use of information technology to play a vital role in an organization's business plan by improving efficiency, creating opportunities, and interacting with customers and vendors. Whereas operational IT is the use of information technology to support the functions of the business with such things as accounting software, e-mail systems, and electronic file storage.

How do smaller businesses choose between strategic and operational IT? I addressed this issue in an earlier column critiquing Nicholas Carr's "IT Doesn't Matter." But before smaller organizations can pursue potential projects with an operational or strategic IT perspective, they often need to look outside for IT resources if they don't have them in-house. But where do you get IT expertise?

In smaller organizations that use IT as an operational tool, there will be times that new IT capabilities need to be implemented to stay in the game. For example, just about every business has at least a basic Web site with information about the company, how to contact it, and the products or services it offers. An organization with an operational IT approach might talk to people they know who are IT savvy to discover what they needed to do and how to get it done as quickly and cheaply as possible. By contrast, another organization might look beyond operational IT capacities to consider the strategic potential of a Web site and recognize that it needs more than a mere electronic brochure.

Recently, a friend of mine who works at a small print publisher faced exactly this issue. The publisher needed to overhaul its Web site, but the internal staff didn't have Web skills beyond basic HTML and image editing, so they knew they needed to hire a person or company to do the work. But they were unsure how to do that, so I offered act as an independent IT consultant on the project.

For organizations without IT management skills, independent IT consultants can be valuable allies who help identify needs, find potential service providers, advise on provider selection, and help plan and manage the project. Smaller businesses without skilled IT management can bring this expertise in-house temporarily for specific projects by hiring independent consultants, and that's the role I played for my friend's company.

Hiring a consultant is an investment. Moreover, it's tempting to cut costs by talking directly to service providers without input from a consultant. After all, quality service providers will gather requirements, plan the project, and manage it, so why spend more money to have a consultant do the same thing? Though a service provider and a consultant may indeed duplicate roles, they do so with distinctly different perspectives -- the consultant advocates for the best interests of the client. A service provider will act in its own interest, and that may result in higher project costs or solutions that don't meet the project objectives or both. An independent consultant plays a vital watchdog role to ensure that the service provider delivers what the client needs, not what the provider wants to deliver.

An organization shopping for IT services needs to have an objective insider who's working for it and its interests and can also identify the vendors that do not have good practices. Relying on service providers can be risky as they will have their own vision of how things should be, what add-ons they can sell to the customer, and how best to go about completing the project; and, that's after the challenge of choosing which company to use for the project.

Despite the obvious benefits of retaining an independent IT consultant, finding one who's qualified isn't easy. The best advice I can offer is to rely on your network of contacts. Most people know at least someone who works in IT who either has the right IT management skills or knows someone else who does. If you ask around enough, you'll find someone who's able and willing to help you. You're looking for an IT leader and not for the best PHP programmer your network can find. With that in mind, here are four traits you should try to find in your independent IT consultant:

  • Business savvy
  • Translating business needs into technical requirements
  • Vendor assessment capabilities
  • Project management skills (if you don't want to rely on the service provider)

I include project management as an optional skill because most vendors have worked with non-IT people as their main contact at a customer and have their own project mechanisms in place. Being business savvy and being able to translate business needs into technical needs are critical to making strategic, rather than purely operational, IT decisions. A business-savvy IT person understands issues like return on investment, cost management, revenue generation, and marketing. Having the ability to identify potential service providers and evaluate their ability to successfully complete the project is not to be looked over either. By getting someone with these skills to help out, an organization can more safely move forward on an IT project when IT is not a strategic component of the organization.

So what happened with my friend's printing company? It decided to use a vendor that someone in the company was familiar with rather that considering multiple vendors. In the end, it went over budget, over schedule, and didn't get some of the features it wanted.

Mike Bohlmann has more than 10 years of experience as a Web developer and an IT manager. He is an IT manager at the University of Illinois, where he is in the process of completing work toward his master's degree. His research is focused on IT management, leadership, and services.