Data Centers

Using technology to improve workflow efficiencies in IT

Let’s spend a moment discussing workflow process management.  Installing new systems on a frequent basis, I usually hear about ways in which IT has helped departments improve their workflow procedures.  This is often the result of converting from an antiquated paper system to an electronic system, and improvements typically include performing tasks quicker and more efficiently.  Labor and, hopefully, printing costs are saved, and staff complete assignments based on a common set of criteria as laid out by the framework of the new computerized system.  Errors are reduced, money is saved, and managers are happy, right?

But let’s look at this from a different angle.  How is IT using the very technology it’s installing elsewhere to improve upon its own workflow processes?  Are we taking note of the realized gains benefiting our customers, and making use of technology to improve efficiencies in our own daily activities?  Depending on the size and maturity of your IT department, you’re probably not. 

It is very easy to get caught up in the fast paced corporate IT world.  There are always existing systems to upgrade, even more new ones to install, and a myriad of daily fires to extinguish.  When is there ever time to stop and examine how we conduct our business?  The truth is, not often enough. 

For a fairly large staff of IT professionals with a minimal amount of procedural structure, managing our daily activities can be a lot like “hanging on for our dear lives” by the tips of our fingernails.  Everyone left to their own devices will, in fact, create their own devices; many of which will not be the most well thought out, and there certainly won’t be much cohesion with each others’ plans.  This is especially true if your IT department is large enough that it is further divided into functional teams such as Client/Server, Networking, Hardware, etc.  I think most of us learn to get very proficient at juggling everything thrown our direction.  We make our own prioritizations, create our individual to-do lists and get from point A to point B by our own methods.

With all of the technology and technical skills at our disposal, how do we as IT professionals manage our projects and daily work?  Sadly, most of us use strategies involving notepads, whiteboards, and paper planners.  It’s often coupled with Excel spreadsheets or Word documents or maybe even Outlook task lists.  Maybe it’s a combination of them all with an Incident Tracking system thrown in for good measure.  The point is we’re all over the board with how we utilize technology to improve our workflow.  And each person in your department likely uses a different method based on what’s worked for them in the past.  As you read this, you’re probably mentally reviewing how you accomplish your daily tasks and objectives.

Let’s take server acquisitions as a simple example and assume that you’ve already determined what server needs to be ordered.  Tasks to be completed still include placing the hardware order, racking the server, providing power, cabling and configuring switch ports, and installing the operating system.  If you’re a small shop, you may be responsible for all of these tasks.  But chances are good that this process will involve more than just your time.  How do you keep track of who is completing what task?  And further, how do you monitor when a preceding task has been completed so that you can move on to the next?  Email?  Phone?  Maybe a little walking and talking?

In our example, there are a defined set of tasks to be completed before the goal of server acquisition is accomplished.  Communication quickly becomes the main cog in the wheel, and can bog down if there is not upfront collaboration between the teams.  Luckily, there are plenty of tools available to assist.  Commercial tools exist such as Microsoft Project Server and Microsoft SharePoint Services; there are many other non MS tools as well.  But tools are only as good as the people using them, so a good deal of planning and tailoring to your environment is still needed.  Buy-in from staff is also critical.

You won’t here me talk much about Novell products here, but there was one, and only one, feature of GroupWise that I liked.  That was the ability to create Routing Slips.  Routing Slips enabled the user to create an ordered set of tasks and assign resources to them.  When one task was marked complete, it would automatically get forwarded on to the next responsible party.  This would continue until the last item was done; simple but effective.  Other tools provide similar functionality in the form of Alerts and Reminders.

Many tools exist to assist with the workflow processes in your IT department.  Decide on a solution and go with it.  Don’t let your customers be the only ones to reap the benefits of technology…

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