Project Management

10 ways to automate the mundane (so you can focus on what matters)

Wouldn't it be great if you could focus on supporting critical business initiatives instead of just keeping the lights on? These steps can help.

Recently, I had the privilege of attending TechRepublic's 2011 Live Event, where I joined technology pros in substantial discussions about today's technology and about the future of our industry. During this event, I was invited to speak on a topic near and dear to me during a session titled "Automate the mundane so you can focus on the impactful." During that session, I discussed ways that IT departments might streamline their services to provide more time to focus on business-leading initiatives as opposed to simply keeping the lights on.

1: Rethink and simplify the infrastructure

In 2010, a coalition of EMC, VMware, and Cisco launched a new product called the Vblock. The VBlock is a "data center in a box" solution that includes all the components necessary to operate a data center — including storage, servers, a virtualization layer, and the interconnects necessary to make it all work. The Vblock solution comes fully preconfigured, pretested, and prevalidated so that organizations know that it will just work. Further, Vblocks have a single point of contact for every issue. There is no need to try to figure out which component is failing; simply call a single support number.

Vblocks probably sound like they're for relatively large environments and, up to a point, that's true. However, for smaller environments that want a similar solution, Dell offers its Vstart infrastructure units, which support 50, 100, and 200 virtual machines.

By buying a "unit of infrastructure," an IT department can take the guesswork out of infrastructure implementation and spend more time deploying business-focused services.

2: Virtualize everything

Virtualize everything. Yes, everything. Do you have four domain controllers? Virtualize every one of them. Virtualize even you biggest Exchange, SQL, and SharePoint systems. If it's physical, figure out a way to get rid of it.

Physical servers require time, space, and energy. The fewer you have, the easier the hardware environment is to support. Obviously, before you virtualize everything, either buy a Vblock or VStart or make sure you have a rock solid environment.

Although I condone virtualizing all your domain controllers, use your hypervisor's features to make sure that domain controller virtual machines run on different hosts to protect against failures. Also, for now at least, never snapshot your domain controllers and expect to revert to snapshotted copies. You run a very high risk of corrupting Active Directory.

3: Review the service catalog

IT departments everywhere have a set of services that are provided to the organization. Document every service that is provided and identify services that do not add value or that create constant issues. From there, ask yourself a couple of questions about each one:

  • Can any services be taken off the table or modified?
  • If it's repeatable, can it be automated?

Obviously, this is easier said than done in many places and will require a lot of discussion across the organization. But the result might just be a leaner, meaner IT organization.

4: Implement Project Portfolio Management

Although business/IT alignment has always been talked about, the rubber really hits the road when IT projects are carefully aligned with strategic goals and matched to resources. This is where Project Portfolio Management (PPM) comes in. PPM is used to optimize use of finite resources and will grow in importance, even in small shops — so get ahead of the wave now.

Ad hoc project and portfolio is no longer acceptable and probably not sustainable; a formalized, repeatable, strategic approach is critical to success. This PPM process will be different for every organization, so think carefully about how you can approach it:

  • Is it purely financially focused?
  • How do IT initiatives link with strategic goals?

At a minimum, create some kind of scoring matrix through which every technology-related idea is run and determine how viable, from an alignment perspective, each idea is.

5: Consider strategic outsourcing/consulting

There's no need to go it alone in everything you do. Consider identifying some of those services that drag you down and make them someone else's problem... and maybe save a few bucks in the process. Here are a few ideas:

  • Managed print services. We've done this at Westminster to great effect.
  • Infrastructure/data center support services. Especially if you go to infrastructure in a box, can you outsource some infrastructure support personnel costs and reallocate some of the potential savings into IT/business pros?
  • Cloud solutions. Strategically and carefully consider migration to cloud-based solutions where it makes sense.

6: Refine identity management

How much time do you spend manipulating user accounts? Are you always notified when someone new joins the organization or someone leaves?

Account management is usually a repeatable, definable process. Map it out completely, implement a rules-based identity management solution, and start managing accounts on an exception basis rather than having to handle each one. You'll save time and might even make your organization a bit more secure in the process.

7: Do as much self-service as humanly possible

Here's a secret: If you can get someone else to do your work for you, you won't have to do it yourself! And, if people can do certain things themselves, they'll be more productive since they don't need to wait for a solution. Here are a few things you should consider making self service:

  • Password resets. These are, by far, the majority of help desk calls. Eliminate them!
  • Help desk knowledgebase. Can users find solutions to their own problems? Start building a knowledgebase. It will grow in use and you might save yourself some time.
  • Software provisioning. Does users need an updated version of Office? Let them get it themselves through a distribution mechanism.

8: Don't ignore BYOD

Bring your own device (BYOD) is coming! This will add new challenges to your workload but it may also present some opportunities that ultimately reduce support load. At the very least, if you're 100% BYOD, your IT department can focus on application delivery as opposed to "full stack" delivery that includes hardware.

Get ahead of BYOD by establishing clear and reasonable guidelines for use. You might find that BYOD enables reallocation of resources to business-friendly initiatives

9: Make integration a priority

Cloud services aren't going to go away no matter how long you close your eyes and will them to vanish. In fact, some cloud-based services can actually be good things, but onboarding such services requires carefully assessment and planning.

Work now to establish onboarding guidelines and processes and make sure that you integrate everything that can be reasonably integrated.

10: Keep it real

Unfortunately, I don't always take my own advice, but I should. At the end of the day, never lose sight of the fact that this is just a job. Unless you're in health care, no one is going to die and lives don't depend on how efficient your IT operation is. You can't automate the mundane if you're totally burned out or your staff is operating well beyond its maximum. So take baby steps and ease into changes as you're able. Don't tackle everything all at once.


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 w...

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