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Specific solutions for the IT department

Scott Lowe offers specific solutions for how to end some activities that IT is doing and shouldn't be.

In the "continuing to beat the horse" department, I wanted to write another follow up to a couple of articles that I wrote here at TechRepublic.  In the first article, I described to you six activities that I believe IT should stop doing and in a second article, listed four more, for a total of ten activities which, once ended, could dramatically change the IT department for the better and start freeing up some time for more value-add activities.

Some of the criticism of the ideas revolved around job security fears from IT pros who believe that their value to the organization is doing the very things that I suggested stopping.  While I believe that a focus on bottom-line-driven initiatives makes far more sense, I also understand why, in the current economy, people would fear making change that could reduce their perception of value.  In fact, I wrote about that very topic as well as why not every original idea makes sense for every single organization.

The next biggest source of criticism came from lack of specific guidance as to how to achieve some of the goals.  I listed ideas, but not specific tools.  Some commenters took this to mean that I simply Googled a bunch of ideas and threw them in a list since that's what tech authors do.  Fortunately for you, I'm not just a tech author.  I've spent 18 years in the field with 10 of them in the senior IT leader/CIO role.  In addition, I've consulted for many different organizations and have implemented some of those very ideas for clients.

In this blog, I'm going to provide specific guidance as to how organizations of any size can get started on the list.  Obviously, for every suggestion below, there are fifty more options out there, so if you don't like what I've suggested, look around a bit.

Running and making cables

I hear a lot of people talk about how quickly they can make cables, but once you factor in the parts cost, the labor cost and the oft-forgotten opportunity cost, 99.9% of the time, the organization would have been better off just buying the cables.

The opportunity cost is what is really important in these equations.  What is the person not able to do because they're making or running cables?

Although there are any number of vendors of patch cables out there, in recent years, I've used ShowMeCables, located just outside St. Louis.  They're very responsive, have fantastic pricing and I haven't had a bad cable yet.

For running new cables through buildings, contact a local contractor.  Even in the small town in which I live, there are multiple very good options for this kind of service.

Creating accounts manually

When I used the phrase "identity management" in a previous article, a number of readers indicated that they're just too small for something like this to make sense.  For very small companies, this is probably true.  However, when it comes to medium and larger organizations, there are no end to the options available and getting creative means that you can get the job done at very little cost and with very little time.

In this article (Tips for synchronizing Exchange distribution lists with a database), which I wrote a few years ago, I mentioned a tool called ADBulkUsers.  This tool allows you to automatically create Active Directory accounts, Exchange mailboxes and home directories using just a connection to a SQL database.  With a little elbow grease, you can create a view on the SQL Server which contains the IDs of people who are in the Human Resources system but do not yet have Active Directory accounts.  From there, ADBulkUsers works its magic.

For more enterprise-level needs that have more complexity, you can always consider such tools as Microsoft Forefront Identity Manager or Novell Identity Manager.  I've either used or worked with both tools in my full-time or consulting life and both are more than capable of getting the job done.

Servicing printers

Unless you have just one or two printers, I'm a believer in outsourcing the whole mess to a company that moves you to per-page pricing while they provide all of the supplies and repairs.  In a previous article, Will a managed print service lower costs?, I dicussed the thought process I went through in one job to move to a managed print service.  Here's another article I wrote more recently on the topic.

The provider that I used was located about 20 miles away, in Jefferson City, MO.  However, there are nationwide providers, including IKON, Xerox and even HP, that can perform this service.  Even if you're in a rural area, look around before you dismiss this idea!  There are regional providers all over the country that can help you in this area.

Taking a "build first" approach

I'll admit that it's a bit tough to make specific recommendations for this idea since the direction will be so dependent on the need.  However, if you've put thought into your overall information and service architecture, it will be easier.

For example, let's assume that you've decided to standardize on SharePoint for your portal/intranet.  Now, you get a request for a new service.  Do you need to build it or do you need to buy it?

The marketplace for third party SharePoint web parts-add ins that extend the functionality of SharePoint-is enormous and growing every day.  Again, I'm suggesting this direction from experience.  I've deployed SharePoint and relied upon that marketplace to meet real business needs.  In many cases, I was able to get needs met without having to go through a huge build process.

Manually installing software

There are all kinds of automated software installation tools out there these days.  Right now, I'm knee deep in creating a System Center 2012 Configuration Manager course, so it's a solution that's at the front of my mind.  But, there are also a lot of other options out there, including Altiris, ZenWorks (I used to use this many years ago and it was very good), KACE (I've used KACE in my lab, but not in production) and many, many more.

Resetting passwords

To say that there are a number of tools out there for self-service password resets would be an understatement.  Sometimes, the service is wrapped up with something else; for example, self-service password reset is included as a feature in Forefront Identity Manager.  I've also deployed ManageEngine's ADSelfService Plus tool with good success.

Another tool I've heard good things about but haven't used personally is Nervepoint Access Manager.

Writing reports for users... to a point

For writing reports, there is significant dependency on needs, user knowledge and a lot more.  That said, for those users that understand database tables, there are self-service reporting tools available for many systems.  Further, even database vendors make some of this possible.  For example, SQL Server ships with SQL Server Reporting Services, which includes a web-based Report Builder tool that can allow users to get access to basic information.

Of the items on this list, this one is probably the most difficult.

Deploying physical servers... to a point

You mean you haven't virtualized your data center yet?  It's 2012!  There are options abound and even small environments can enjoy the benefits.  VMware ESXi is free.  Microsoft Hyper-V is free, even the newly released 2012 edition.  I've used both vSphere and Hyper-V (both Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2012) and whichever option you choose will do the job nicely, although the 2008 R2 Hyper-V is the least capable of the bunch.

Web content changes

If you're still supporting web services that are based on raw HTML, it's time to get a content management system.  There are no end to the free tools that are out there.  I've used many, including Joomla, Drupal and even WordPress, with success.  In a previous position, I've also used SharePoint with great success.

Once a CMS is deployed, users need to be trained, but then IT can get out of most of the content management business.

Summary

I hope that these specific examples can help you in your quest to streamline IT operations and recover some of the lost opportunity cost that continues to be poured into activities that can often be better handled in other ways.

About

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...

8 comments
SheFixesThings
SheFixesThings

Being a Reporting Application Developer /. Data Analyst for over 20 years, I only sort of agree. Organization should "proceed with caution" when trying this. Yes, the end-product reports can totally be generated by a well-versed Business User...BUT...the organization MUST have checks, balances, and an IT support staff put in place in case something goes awry, To name a few: all their data organized in such a fashion that #1: it is accurately placed on non-critical-to-operations table specifically for end-user usage or they will bring down the servers due to a bad query seeing that it is quite hard for those business users to distinguish an AND from an OR (requesting data for City=Chicago OR State=Illinois can really make a system DBA quite angry); #2: joining the data to many sources by end-users is restricted or they will send the query language's hardware into doom by running full-table scans to hell and back; #3: the organization has a Subject Matter Reporting Application developer(s) AND QA staff who knows that data inside and out to double-check numbers BEFORE they are released for public knowledge. While the theory sounds simple, TOO many items must be put into place BEFORE attempting this feat or then you will have reports that make the Enron fiasco look like fun at Disney World. Do you really want an organization where everyone has their own version of the proverbial "truth"? Then who will it get dumped back to when it falls apart because they won't know how they tweaked their numbers? IT? QA? Trust me. one of the many situations that stands out the most for me was where an end-user created his own reports only to find out that it was my job to band-aid his error when he did not do his due diligence and research his numbers before posting them to the executives. He actually called me from the meeting on speaker with lots of executives in the room, accusing that MY numbers in the tables were bad because the executives were questioning them. When I asked what he was referring to, I had the knowledge that he did not to state that that different departments define net sales a bit differently so I pushed back to him on which version was he trying to display? Needless to say, he wasn't with the company much longer than that and it unfortunately left a bad taste in the executives' mouths so they decided against this sort of flexibility and it once again fell back on an under-staffed IT to pick up the pieces.

Dyalect
Dyalect

Cheaper is not always better. And diminishing your job / role to nothing so you have more time to work on your resume doesn't make sense to me.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Opportunity costs - I hate making cables, but I can make a single one faster than I can fill out the paperwork to order it, and a lot faster than it takes to get it delivered. Obviously, the advantage goes toward purchasing when I buy them in larger quantities; the paperwork takes just as long whether I order a quantity of one or a quantity of 25, and the delivery doesn't matter when I order a variety of lengths to keep as inventory items. Manually installing software - again, it's a question of volume. I have a handful of programs I install maybe every other month or less. It's not worth building an SCCM package, troubleshooting it, creating an advertisement, etc, for an app I install that infrequently.

davist@childrensfactory.
davist@childrensfactory.

Scott, thanks for the links. If there are SA's like me out there theoretical doesn't help much when your too busy to spend hours researching, give me links to point me in a direction. I have to say when I read the first article I said "this guy is crazy I can create patch cables quickly in my sleep". I decided, though, to run the numbers especially since STL is so close and if ShowMeCables quality vs price is that good I would have to consider them. Even at my best, due to my payscale, is would cost me nearly 4.50 to make a 10ft patch cable, much higher than I can purchase them for.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

This is the one I was most hesitant including. If you're looking at deep analytics, there needs to be one "truth" or chaos will ensue. That said, if someone needs a simple list, why can't they try to do that themselves? And, I agree... checks are critical! Scott

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Somebody needs to check the logic used in the query. Otherwise you may get one of those reports that compares ice cream consumption with drownings and concludes there's a cause and effect relationship.

Fairbs
Fairbs

I worked for a manufacturing company where IT collected data across the factory, but we allowed engineers to play with the data using (if I remember correctly) SQL Query Builder. They were playing with copies or views of the data so performance issues they created would only exist in their world. I never heard of instances where the engineers tried to blame IT, but maybe this was because they had enough math skills and smarts to understand their results and enough integrity not to place blame wrongly. I agree that vetting data that will be published publicly is important and would be an important function for IT either in the report development process or as QA before being published.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

This is not about cheap. It's about... and I hate to even use the word... value. what are you getting for your money? If someone else can do the mundane stuff for less cost and do it better, let them. Free yourself up for other things that add value to the business.