Cost saving is not the same thing as adding value…

Do you have an IT department? My home has two (and we sometimes argue about it). Your IT department might be internal, might be an outsourced services provider, or it may even be one person. Almost every organization, large or small, has one. Yours might only be the boss’ nephew who’s “good with computers”, but I bet you have one too.

Why is this important? Because technology is only as good as the people who run it.

Organizations always try to do more with less, and technology departments are no exception. Hardware, software, and processes combine to do work in minutes that used to take a great many man hours. Now automation and advancement mean you can build and maintain complex infrastructures and run them with a minimum of staff. I have used some of these advancements myself to run fairly large organizations’ technology practically single handed.

However, at the end of the day, no matter how small, you still need an IT staff of some kind. As the massive marketing push behind cloud computing leads people to believe they can outsource their infrastructure just like they outsource their staff, it becomes easier and easier to adopt the belief that our systems need no management at all. That mindset will not lead to a satisfactory technology experience.

Why is this? Amid the clarion call of “to the cloud” it is easy to forget that one size does not fit all, and out of the box solutions rarely fit real world situations.

First, I do endorse could computing. I find it particularly useful for end users – including myself. I keep my documents on Dropbox, which is an excellent hybrid solution. The same document set is stored on 4 different computers, and if I am not at any of them, they are also available online via a web browser. I currently host my e-mail through Google Apps, because as much as I love Exchange, my Cox Internet connection is not reliable enough for e-mail hosting – especially for someone like me who lives and breathes e-mail.

However, the typical SMB still needs onsite servers. There is data that must be stored on site. There are applications that are too thick or too complex to web enable. Not everyone has access to a data connection robust enough that when they e-mail a 50 MB file to the person in the next cube that it won’t be a painful wait. Some companies need to be able to run forensic grade e-discovery searches against historic e-mail. And finally, the local LAN infrastructure uses AD and Group Policy for workstation management, as well as network and management features like DNS, WINS, and WSUS. Vinton Cerf himself said it is “not only desirable, but quite natural, to have servers at home in addition to having use of the cloud“. I have 2 physical and 3 virtual servers myself, and my home is hardly a complex infrastructure. Microsoft as an absolutely fantastic product for all of this in Small Business Server, but because that line is no longer profitable, MS is doing all they can to migrate their SMB customers to cloud offerings. Of course that leaves managed service providers and small IT departments pretty much in the cold because with there is little opportunity for IT services revenue in a purely cloud play.

Now we start to reach the point where technology, cost control, and the needs of business start to diverge.

I have been in several situations with frustrated users trying to get support on a misbehaving web based app. Occasionally they are hosted by the company who wrote it, or just by a good ASP, and the problem gets fixed. More often, I have encountered situations where the app is certified for environment X, and you have to conform. Users are told they need to run IE 6, they need to disable their firewall, they need more bandwidth, they have to run an earlier version of Java, or they can’t also have this other program installed. I’ve heard as many causes that the user has been told to fix as I have encountered problems.

Now you have our problem. Users now have to take instruction from tech support outside of their environment, on blind faith, and hope it doesn’t break something else. Of course they can’t run IE6 – their OS came with IE8. Turning off the firewall is a security risk. Downgrading or upgrading Java breaks another app. Higher bandwidth speed isn’t available in their area. Perhaps they have high capacity bandwidth, but because they outsourced their telephony offsite to a managed VoIP provider, 2/3 of their bandwidth is being consumed by voice traffic. An in-house or close-in (like an MSP) technical resource would know these things, and could push for alternative fixes to get the app working, or would be able to create a workaround of their own, like a virtual environment just for the app in question. Without such a resource, what happens is productivity declines, users trust their technology less (because something is always not working), or worse, start to abandon it in favor of less productive but more reliable alternative methods of doing their work.

All of this comes back to the core need for not just technical expertise to make what is in front of the user work, but to also keep it from breaking everything else when getting it to work. Now you have the need for a technology advocate.

When an office infrastructure is working well, many users don’t think beyond logging in, Word, Outlook, and their ERP system of choice. Because we have done such a good job with robustness and automation, users and management have gotten out of the habit of thinking about, or asking for, other things.

But there are other things – things not currently serviced or supported by the cloud. Your IT staff (in house or out) should also be providing you with quarterly risk analysis and software audits. There should be 12, 24, and 36 month technology adoption and retirement plans in place. They should be working in tandem with management to select the best hardware, operating systems, software, and security systems for the corporate environment. They should be keeping track of when all domains and SSL certificates expire, and be renewing them far enough in advance to not risk an outage. They should be monitoring servers and web sites not only for uptime, but performance – if they are hosted in house or not. They should be logging bandwidth utilization to know if what is being purchased meets the company needs, and if the company is being delivered all they are paying for. They should be keeping servers and workstations backed up, patched, and optimized. They should be easily reachable in the event of an issue or outage. If any of this isn’t true, then you don’t have an IT staff, and again your technology is perceived as unreliable, not meeting the needs of the business, and user experience suffers.

Nothing here is a specific call to action. However, every time I encounter a customer with a server where backup hasn’t worked for 6 months, or where users have just given up on things working well, I am flabbergasted that management has allowed this to happen. I am especially perplexed when I come in as a supplement to an existing IT staff. IT is not just a support function anymore, it is an integral part of the business – any business. IT professionals need to be able to help a executive assistant with a paper jam, and also be able to take a CEO out to lunch and justify a 5 year budget. We’re beyond “IT and the rest of the company” mentality. IT can no longer lament not having a seat at the table – board members and shareholders need to demand it.

But then it is up to us to sit down.

2 thoughts on “Cost saving is not the same thing as adding value…

    • Yes, but part of the problem is also that IT has done a poor job of communicating its value proposition. This makes it very easy for the default c-level response to be “no” or “cut here” for any technology based initiative.

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