Prerequisites for taking IT to the next level

CIO Scott Lowe answers the question, If you have an environment that has old technology and needs a facelift, where is the biggest value?

Last week, my topic focused on the role of CIO moving from that of technologist to process specialist/strategist. In that article, I outlined my own experience in my journey along this path. Suffice it to say, I still have some distance to travel.

TechRepublic reader Heidi Sheehan posted a fantastic question to my post:

Scott -- very good read. As you commented on, the latter projects demonstrate the IT org's ability to partner better with the business and can start to evolve to a process expert team. My question/comment to that is what's most important. If you have an environment that has old technology and needs a facelift, where is the biggest value? Do the business leaders trust you more as a partner when they have reliable laptops and network drives and such? Would it be hard to position yourself as a process expert and partner when core IT services aren't mature yet?

I think the evolution concept is great, but my only caution is the level of technical maturity that must exist for the rest of the business to trust in that. Thoughts?

Heidi brings up some excellent points. If you're a CIO working toward this goal, you're not going to get very far if the basics simply don't work. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do my users have reliable equipment? It doesn't have to be the latest and greatest, but when they come to work, can they depend on their machines actually working?
  • Does my infrastructure support everyone's needs? A network and data center infrastructure is the foundation on which all IT services and most business operates. Does your network keep up with business needs? Is it reliable or do you need to reboot the core switch every two hours? Do you have reasonable levels of redundancy in key areas?
  • Does my help desk actually help? Do your users view your help desk as a blessing or a curse? Do your help desk professionals know how to support people with their ongoing technology issues? Do you have a reasonable process by which trouble tickets are handled and, if necessary, escalated?
  • Do I adequately protect your systems? Do you test your backups? These are very basic operational items that, if they fail, will help a CIO and the IT department lose all credibility -- and possibly their jobs.
  • Do I automate my own silo? It's a tough sell to help others automate their operations when your own are still accomplished with stone knives and bear skins.

Heidi also asked what items are most important to address when facing an environment that needs a facelift. This can be daunting, depending on just how bad things are. Here's how I have handled such situations in the past:

  • Fix the foundation. This is the network. This is what holds everything together. If the network is not capable of supporting the business, the network needs to be replaced. I faced this exact situation at Westminster when I started, and replacing the network was one of the first actions I took. This is something that simply has to work if you expect to be taken seriously in a process-oriented role. Whether you're running your own data center, have shifted everything to the cloud, or use a mix of the two, the very basics just have to work -- no questions asked.
  • Fix the staffing. You've got to have a good foundation, but you also have to have staff that can work with people and support the technologies in use in the organization. If you have staff who can't or won't meet expectations, fix it. Either get appropriate training or let people go and replace them with people who can get the job done. Until the staff can keep up, you have no hope of succeeding. There are two reasons for this. If your staff is not capable of doing the job, you're either not getting them the training they need or you're not capable of managing them. In either case, other business partners will notice and will not have the confidence that you can make the hard decisions about what needs to happen in your partnerships.
  • Fix equipment levels. With a good foundation and a staff who can do their jobs, now it's time to address people's equipment needs. Make sure that they have equipment that allows them to get their jobs done. Note that this doesn't mean simply buying new hardware for everything -- although that would work - but means that you've addressed the glaring issues that exist in the organization. Some people might want faster machines, but as long as work is getting done, your credibility is safe.
  • Automate internal IT operations. Make sure you have in place self-service items such as self-service password recovery systems. Also make sure you're automating routine tasks such as account provisioning and more. I will admit that this is one area where my team is very weak at Westminster. This stuff can be hard, especially if you want to do it right. We're at present working on an identity management initiative that will culminate in the implementation of Microsoft Forefront Identity Manager 2010 to handle start-to-end identity management and automated password recovery. But, it's not the only step you can take. Look for workflow automation tools that can automate everything that's routine. Then, simply handle the errors and the exceptions. As I said, this is the step we're on at Westminster.

Although I'm fortunate that I'm consulted on process improvements -- I know what needs to be done, but execution is limited by resources -- once we've accomplished that internal automation step, I see the following happening:

  • Added credibility. Once we're running like a well-oiled machine, it's easier for others to see that we can help.
  • More time to spend on a business focus. The less time that we need to mess around with routine things, the more time we have to spend on value-added services.

Heidi, I hope that this answers your questions. I wish I could say that I run the epitome of IT shops, but, like many, we have our own challenges to wade through, although I think we're on a good path.