Computer cover Outside team can give protection


How's this for a nightmare: It's less than two months until Christmas, your busiest time of the year. Just as you're gearing up for the crunch, the one person in your company who understands your in-house computer systems leaves to take another job. Suddenly, correspondence, sales data and financial reports are lost in a black hole, paralyzing the business at a critical juncture.

If you think no one's to blame for this sudden crisis, or that it's the inevitable byproduct of doing business in the computer age, you're wrong. Ditto if you think the culprit is the departed employee. The fact is the buck must stop at the desk of the president, who is at fault for allowing the company to become dependent on a single person.

Many business owners are confused about computer technology and prefer to keep their distance from it. They designate an individual to be the company's computer guru, vesting that person with full authority for running the company's systems.

That can work well as long as the person performs on the job, but what happens if the individual retires or takes a job with a competitor? All too often, management has a difficult time getting the information it needs to run the company.

How can you prevent this scenario from crippling your business? One strategy is to hire consultants trained to oversee computer functions. These so-called "facilities managers" serve as computer SWAT teams, backing up and supporting staff personnel and filling the gaps in their absence.

In a typical arrangement, functions such as systems start-up, file backup and console operation are performed by in-house personnel while system failures, software modifications and new systems development are performed by the facilities managers.

"Our role is not to replace a client company's data processing people but instead to work in harmony with them," says Tom Bruno, manager of midrange systems development for the accounting and consulting firm of Richard A. Eisner & Co., which serves as facilities managers.

"For example, a DP manager may have strong programming skills, but may lack the experience required for implementing a specific communications technique," he says. "We can work with him in developing that project and can help to assure that it operates smoothly."

Companies working with facilities managers should take the following steps to assure a smooth and productive relationship:

* Acquaint the facilities managers with the company's current and long-range goals. This helps to assure that the computer system will perform in tandem with those goals.

Mr. Bruno explains, "Assume the company is planning to expand from a single site to a multioffice operation. By being aware of this, and by engaging in advance planning, the facilities managers can help to design a system capable of supporting a multioffice environment."

* At the outset of the relationship, have the facilities managers conduct an upfront review of the company's system, culminating in a written report on its strengths and weaknesses. This enables the experts to discover the causes of chronic system failure and to devise permanent rather than makeshift solutions.

"In many cases, companies experience repeated systems failure while conducting their month-end procedures," Mr. Bruno says. "Our review often indicates that the problem is caused by inadequate disk storage. We attack this by adding substantially to the system's disk storage capacity, thus removing the cause of the problem and making it more likely that a failure can be avoided."

* Establish a problem response procedure, outlining steps for quickly correcting problems and for returning your system to full-service operations.

Fees for facilities managers generally range from $80 to $120 per hour. Companies can pay on this basis or can negotiate retainer agreements calling for set fees over a contract period.

Accountants, consultants and computer vendors can recommend reputable facilities managers. The best approach is to interview three firms, checking their fees, capabilities and references before making a decision.

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