Do you outsource, keep it in-house, or opt for a combination of both? Industry experts who have taken this path give us their pointers.
The current shift
When Saint Kentigern College in Auckland set up its Web site five years ago, everything was done in-house, from infrastructure maintenance to the updating of information. This changed, however, in mid-2001.
“A lot of other schools would be very happy with what we have,” says Walter Chieng, IT director. But the school, which has alumni all over the world and recruits internationally, wanted its corporate educational presence “right up there”.
Today, Saint Kentigern outsources the management of the Web site (www.saintkentigern.com). Chieng says the system works well, and costs less.
As the experience of the school has shown, a number of enterprises that used to do all their Web site development in-house are now considering or already outsourcing this function, or some of it. This shift is prompted by the fact that today’s Web sites are becoming more complex, and enterprises have to add more features as their needs change. Technologies for Web site management are also developing rapidly, and the in-house team may not have ready access to, or expertise to implement them.
MIS asked the following IT directors and other business executives for their Web site management insights:
David Blewden, director, Lilies by Blewden, Cambridge;
Walter Chieng, director of information technology, Saint Kentigern College;
Matthew Harman, business development manager, NZPA Content Services;
Hamish Mitchell, marketing communications manager, Fuji Xerox;
Jon Ostler, technical director, First Rate;
Pat Reedy, co-owner of Silk Road Adventures; and
Genevieve Gill, a barrister who specialises in IT law.
1. Be clear on what your Web site wants to achieve
This will determine the scope of the project.
“Building an effective Web site is a lot like building a house,” says Pat Reedy, who runs Silk Road Adventures (www.silkroad.co.nz), a Web-based travel site. “You need to be clear on what you require the site to do. It pays to have a concept of what it is to look like and how it should perform. These ideas will form the brief for a Web designer and guide the construction of the site.”
Hamish Mitchell, marketing communications manager of Fuji Xerox, which commissioned the America’s Cup Web site (www.americascup.com), says the group gathered as much information as possible on the 2000 site prior to going into the project. “We needed to know the numbers and the users, the way in which it will be used and by whom. These helped us determine what we were going to need.”
2. Learn from the best
Benchmark your organisation against other sites in the same or similar industries.
This is common advice from our respondents. “We looked at other Web sites for inspiration and what features worked well,” says Reedy of Silk Road Adventures. “We talked with our Webmaster about how to achieve the look we wanted and we experimented.”
Joe Caccioppoli, general manager vertical solutions, Infinity Solutions, says the first exercise most development companies carry out with clients is to find sites with architecture, flow and a look and feel they like and incorporate these characteristics into the new Web site. “The reality is, very little Web development gets done today that may be considered as bespoke development, that doesn’t actually take some inspiration from sites already there.”
Matthew Harman, business development manager, NZPA Content Services, which runs NewsQuest, a Web-based news service, advises finding Web sites that provide the functionality you’re looking for and then track down the people that developed them.
3. Weigh the pros and cons of outsourcing and going in-house
The path you take should depend on several factors.
E-commerce, a guidebook produced by the Ministry of Economic Development, says one should contemplate creating a Web site by yourself only if you are computer literate, have some graphic design skills and are willing to spend the time required to do it properly.
David Blewden, director of Lilies by Blewden, fits the bill. He built the site www.lilies.co.nz literally from scratch more than two years ago. He and a staff member bought the Microsoft Front Page program and a digital camera and spent two weeks working on the project. Blewden says he supplies the Web site content and his staff member is concerned with logistics such as uploading.
He says the site is not animated but serves the purpose of the business. Outsourcing the task would have been expensive, he believes; time being the greatest investment in a DIY situation. “If you have a few clues and you can afford to spend a bit of time, it is not difficult to create a simple Web site.”
Other enterprises may not find this option practical. E-Commerce advises getting someone else to design and maintain the Web site if it is to be more than brochureware, and definitely getting an expert for a fully-enabled e-commerce site.
Chieng of Saint Kentigern says when the Web site development was done in-house, two or three IT staff members were assigned to the project. Today, only one staff member works with the developer Open Box Design in updating the information on the Web site.
NZPA combines services. It asks a specialist company to host the Web site, but manages the news database in-house. “From the start we were open-minded about whether we should host the Web sites ourselves, or have a specialist company look after them for us. In the end, the latter proved the most sensible option. It saved a considerable amount in infrastructure and ongoing connection costs, and by hosting the site with our development partner, we gained access to a higher level of support expertise than would have otherwise been the case,” says Harman.
NZPA brought back in-house the development of its news database because “users would come to us to explain the problems they were having with the system, but because of our lack of control, we had no real ability to address their concerns. Ultimately this reflected badly on us.”
Jon Ostler, technical director, First Rate, which specialises in search engine marketing, says outsourcing also reduces the risks for enterprises.
He says First Rate, for instance, tries out new ways of getting Web sites into the top search engines. When the technique is successful, it is applied to clients. “You don’t need to experiment. You don’t have to make mistakes. You get experience from the other clients as well.
It’s not just a one-dimensional experience where it is just your site, your industry. You actually benefit from the experience of the outsourcer with other industries.”
4. Get key people involved
Make sure the Web site is not just an IT project.
Chieng of Saint Kentigern says a “high priority” in a Web site development project is to get people from other business units involved. “We had the luxury of getting quite a few key people involved in the discussion process. It was not just an IT department project, it was a management project.”
The different management heads also agreed on standards for the project. “Not many organisations have that luxury, time wise,” notes Chieng. “But I think it is paramount that key stakeholders do get involved in the process.”
Harman of NZPA suggests enlisting the support of the users. “The first and most important step in any development project is to work out what you are trying to achieve. While people internally might be able to come up with plenty of ideas about what a good piece of software should do, we’ve found it invaluable to get a group of end users involved in our projects very early on. You’ll get a better quality product and just as importantly, because of their involvement, getting buy-in from key users will be much easier.”
5. Have a project plan, but be flexible
Adjustments have to be made to suit the changing needs of the enterprise.
Harman of NZPA says the organisation had already developed business and project plans for the Web site. “However, we acknowledged from the outset that nothing other than the objectives and the budget could be set in stone. The nature of software development is that, in the time between the concept being accepted and the final site being implemented, a new and better approach will be found.” He adds: “We had a plan, but also the flexibility to test components and where necessary specify functional enhancements, throughout the development process.”
Blewden of lilies.co.nz is also not closed to the possibility he may need additional technical expertise if business on the Web increases. “We’re basically positioning ourselves, getting knowledge in place now. Eventually, when our customers do become a lot more e-commerce savvy, we’re going to be well-positioned to take advantage of that.”
6. Take advantage of Web content management technology
As sites become more complex, Web content management software prices are falling.
Gartner points out the Web sites of small and mid-size enterprises will continue to grow in complexity and are likely to place additional challenges on already burdened IT staff. Meanwhile, Web content management tools, are becoming less costly and SMBs should take advantage of this. Ostler of First Rate concurs: “You should not reinvent something that has already gone there.” Ostler cites the case of Flying Pig, which spent millions of dollars for its technology infrastructure, which could have been bought at a fraction of that price in the US.
Another option for enterprises is the use of templates. Infinity Solutions has developed a template for mid-sized law firms that can slash development costs by over 50 per cent. With the template, users can develop professional Web site that it could personalise, and can allow extra features like online newsletters.
Fuji Xerox’s DocuShare, used as a Web-based document management system, was customised to operate as the back end for the America’s Cup site. Designated people can update stories and information on the site from anywhere in the world and need not be technically orientated. Fuji Xerox could have designed and built a database system to run the Web site, but this would have cost more and been less flexible.
7. Choose your provider carefully
Shop around and check references.
Harman of the NZPA says the key to success in their various Web projects was identifying the right development partner. “Whether they are on staff or on contract, if the people doing the development haven’t got a respectable portfolio of work behind them, your software is unlikely to meet any of its objectives.”
“We were determined to learn from the mistakes of those who went before us, so we went looking for an organisation that had a sizable amount of experience working with news providers and large database driven applications.”
Ostler of First Rate stresses enterprises should ask for – and check – vendor reference sites and be wary of one-stop shops offering everything. “If one agency says they can do everything, they normally outsource in the background. One-stop shops that actually do all the work in-house often get overwhelmed on large projects, as they often do not have the processes or resources to cope with demanding projects.”
He says an enterprise should assign a project manager who will get together the suppliers in a “kick off meeting” and develop a good project plan. At the same time, he advises enterprises to be upfront about their budget and requirements.
For instance, he says, firms with budget constraints that would like to do in-house work as much as possible to minimise expenses should inform their suppliers this is so.
Step 8 and conclusion
8. Be prepared on the legal front
Issues can range from copyright concerns to privacy.
Genevieve Gill, a lawyer specialising in IT law, identifies several key legal issues that may be overlooked as enterprises become concerned with technical and content issues. Her primary advice: “Avoid any ambiguity over intellectual property ownership.”
When commissioning Web site development, businesses should insist on owning all intellectual property rights in the Web site design as well as the content, she says. Ownership of the design itself is often overlooked, but it is important; particularly where the site owner operates in a competitive industry.
There are practical reasons for this. “It protects enterprises in situations where a Web developer may not be around long-term, it prevents the Web site developer from producing a similar site for one of your competitors or potential competitors, and is also more effective for a business to enforce its intellectual property rights than to insist that the Web site designer (who generally has no vested interest) do so.”
The enterprise should also ensure it has prior written consent of the copyright owner of any site it proposes to link to before introducing the links to the site. The linked sites should also be reviewed regularly to ensure they are still operational and the contents still relevant.
Where the developer also hosts the site, the hosting agreement should clearly state all data in-put, collected, stored, processed, or transacted through the site belongs to the purchaser. The agreement should specify the frequency by which this data will be backed up, and that the data will be provided to the purchaser in machine readable form at any time at the purchaser’s request.
Where third party licensed software is used or embedded into the site design or content, the developer needs to procure transferable licenses for this software (so the licence may be freely transferred, providing the purchaser with the flexibility to replace the developer with an alternative supplier, or to modify or update the site in-house).
Gill stresses the importance of clarifying the scope of services. Where the Web site designer is not going to provide the full suite of services (like development, maintenance, updating content, and hosting) purchasers should ensure there is clarity regarding the scope of the Web designer’s role, and his or her accountability for resolving problems.
She also advises linking payment to performance, based on agreed milestones. Performance expectations and the security requirements of the business must be specified at the outset. While actual performance will depend upon certain variables outside the control of the Web site developer, the site should be designed to work efficiently (and meet any specified performance criteria) in a test environment.
Conclusion: Get smart
IT teams involved in Web site management have a host of options on how to approach the project. And they can now bank on the experiences of those that have been there, including the failed and successful enterprises of the dot-com era. As the various enterprises here have shown, the path to be taken depends on an assiduous assessment of what the project is supposed to do; how much resources the enterprise can commit; and how it all fits in the enterprise’s growth strategy.