As I've traveled in recent months, I've had an opportunity to see a lot of IT departments in action. One thing I discovered is that many groups that have grown up organically still cling to activities they should consider moving off to other people. Here are 10 things I've seen IT departments handling that I think should be handled by others or through different means. Some of these tasks may be fairly easy to shift from your IT portfolio -- others may not be feasible for everyone, but they're worth considering.
Note: This list is based on entries in our IT Leadership blog.
1: Running and making cables
When I started my first IT job in 1994, I was placed on a project that involved running category 5 state-of-the-art (at the time) cabling through K-12 schools and terminating it to a patch panel or by crimping an RJ45 connector on the end. Because Cat5 was so new, it was still pretty expensive, so my organization opted to make many of our own network cables.
Today, this is an activity better left to people who specialize in cabling installations. It's likely to cost more to make than to buy when you consider time and materials, and there's no guarantee that it will work. I remember spending quite some time learning how to terminate both Cat5 and thin coax. Today, I'm thrilled to see organizations bring in people who have the technical knowledge and testing tools necessary to install cabling that conforms to requirements for ever-more-sensitive networking electronics and standards.
While having someone come in and install cabling will cost a bit of money, consider the opportunity-cost side of the equation. Is there an activity your IT department could be doing that has a more substantial impact on the bottom line? Start doing that and stop doing this.
2: Creating accounts manually
This one can be hard to do, but it's worth it in the end. How much time does your staff spend managing accounts and dealing with exceptions? Don't forget all the ancillary tasks that come along with creating an account, such as provisioning a mailbox and creating a home directory. As you add more systems to the mix, this job becomes more and more onerous.
Here's the rub: User accounts, for the most part, can be completely driven from other systems, most notably the human resources system. Implement identity management tools that can be programmed to take the hassle out of this activity by mostly automating the process. From there, IT has only to handle exceptions and any specialty accounts that may need to be created, such as service accounts.
3: Servicing printers
Quick poll: How many of you hate supporting printers? If you're a typical CIO, printers are the bane of your existence. They cost a lot, they're finicky, and users prize them and scream when they aren't working right.
Here's what I did.
I made it someone else's problem by moving to a managed printing service. The company I selected assumed full responsibility for all our existing equipment and provided both repair services and toner replacement. In return, we paid the company per page printed each month.
Believe it or not, we saved a lot of money. The company could get parts more quickly and easily than we could, and their bulk buying capability got them toner at prices we would never have been able to touch on our own. Best of all, it freed up scarce help desk staff time to focus on other needs.
4: Taking a "build first" approach
Building software used to be the only way to get something done for the business. Of course, organizations have always performed a build vs. buy analysis. But today, with the rise of cloud services, organizations should be leaning toward the "buy" side of the equation. I say "leaning" because a buy approach will not work for everyone in every situation. But it makes sense to see whether your business problem has already been solved by someone else before you start coding.
5: Manually installing software
Microsoft will be releasing a new version of Office in the coming months. How will your organization do the upgrade? Will IT staff run around and install the upgrade from a central network location or will you push the software out using an automated software installation tool, such as the one included in System Center Configuration Manager?
As is the case with some of the other repetitive, non-value add activities discussed in this article, routine software installation should be handled as a part of an overall imaging process coupled with a reasonably robust software distribution platform.
6: Resetting passwords
Statistics show that password issues are a healthy percentage of help desk calls -- but in an unhealthy way! When users have a password issue, they can't do their work, and the IT staffer is taken away from what could be more important work to handle what could be a self-service task.
Self-service password reset tools can be had for really cheap these days and can be implemented, literally, in a day or two for smaller organizations. It might take a bit more time in larger organizations, but it's still not rocket science. I recently implemented self-service password reset at one of my client sites. The tool was relatively low cost and even had a way to integrate with the Windows login screen so that users could reset their password even if they were sitting in front of their PC at midnight on a Saturday.
7: Writing reports for users... to a point
I've seen organizations that rely on IT for every report to be run. Let me be clear: The end users simply did not run reports. The IT help desk was contacted and a request submitted, even for an existing report to be executed. This is a waste of time for both the end user, who now has to wait for someone to run the report, and for IT, who now has to simply execute the report.
The situation may be different for an end user who is requesting the creation of a new report. A number of self-service report creation tools are available on the market, but some reports are particularly challenging and require additional technical analysis to complete. So the creation of the new report may wind up as a collaborative venture between IT and the end user in question.
Note that I suggested this should be a joint venture. It's still not a case where IT will go it alone. The expectation should be that end users know what they want and can articulate that need in a reasonable way. It may take a few iterations to drill down to the perfect solution, but ultimately, end users have to know what they're asking for.
Many of you will respond to this item with, "Yeah... that'll never happen." And you're probably right for one of two reasons: 1) Your organizational culture is one in which the IT department is simply a bunch of order takers; 2) Your own thinking is getting in the way. The worst you can do is to try to get users to a point where they are asserting some level of ownership over the informational activities their jobs require. If your culture rejects the attempt, so be it -- but don't give up before giving it a shot.
8: Deploying physical servers... to a point
These days, with a modern infrastructure, the underlying components necessary to deploy a new application can be provisioned in mere hours -- or even minutes -- as opposed to the days, weeks, or months it would have taken in an all-physical world.
Yet some IT organizations remain steadfastly opposed to virtualization, labeling it as a "flash in the pan" that will go away. It's not going to go away and the advantages are simply too great to ignore, even for smaller organizations.
Deploying a physical server is a lot of effort and requires racking, cabling, cooling, and plenty of human intervention. Although virtual environments still rely on these efforts, once they're deployed, managing them is much easier and new service deployment is a snap.
With the benefits that come from Microsoft's virtualization rights associated with Windows Server Enterprise and Data Center, the licensing cost break-even to go virtual is around seven virtual machines.
9: Making Web content changes
This one used to frustrate me to no end. Simple Web site content changes required a high level IT staff person to execute. Although Web content lies squarely in marketing's lap, it requires that the marketing people be trained on the use of the content management system software and that they have the willingness to learn how to use it.
In general, IT staffers will maintain the underlying Web infrastructure and may work at a high level on content when there is a need for sophistication beyond the normal. However, if an IT staff person is constantly doing small content updates, those activities should be housed in the marketing area, freeing up that IT staff person to add features and functionality instead.
However, this one isn't the slam dunk I believe some other suggestions to be. It's more political and, in many organizations, the IT department is in charge of the Web site. In these cases, it makes sense for IT staff to be doing Web work.
10: Managing finances for communications services
I learned this one the hard way. Working on monthly phone bills carries with it absolutely zero value add to the organization beyond being able to charge every department for its 37-cent phone calls. There are a lot of ways that this activity can be made someone else's problem:
- Outsource the management of the communications billing. There are many, many companies out there that specialize in telecommunications invoice and service handling that would be more than happy to take this task of your hands.
- Move to a flat rate service. For local and long distance wired service, this is what I did in a previous position. I moved to services that included enough minutes that we never had an overage. In one position, this meant a move to SIP trunks. In both cases, the organization saved thousands of dollars per year and at the same time, the phone bill became easy to manage.
Some of these ideas will be easier to implement than others, so don't think that this article is telling you to simply quit doing all of the above. However, it is worth a quick analysis to determine the feasibility of eliminating these services from your IT portfolio either by empowering end users with tools and training or by strategically outsourcing certain activities.
- 10 ways to automate the mundane (so you can focus on what matters)
- Five time-wasting tasks IT shouldn't be doing anymore
- Get drastic: 15 IT best practices to kill
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at email@example.com.