Category Archives: IT

Real SMB IT: Automate

In the small to medium enterprise, everybody is stretched thin.

Everybody wears many hats,and nobody has enough time.

That includes your IT team. Fix that issue, support that problem, assist someone else with another.

However, in many cases, your IT team has a way to begin getting out of that assistance rut: automation

One very large key to reducing your IT costs and staying sane is to ensure that you consolidate as much as possible and even more importantly to automate as much as possible.

I have seen technical support issues that routinely took excessive amounts of time to resolve, when the issue was a configuration or connectivity issue that can be automated through various tools or methods.

When something is done repeatedly and routinely, do your best to find a way to have it automated.

IT Doesn’t Matter: 2012

Just about 10 years ago, Nicholas Carr wrote his seminal HBR article IT Doesn’t Matter, later followed up by the book that changed that phrase to a question: Does IT Matter?

And yes, as I’ve mentioned before, I have always agreed with Mr. Carr, and written that several times (here, here, and here).

To quote myself from one of those;

…if an assembly line is a table stakes commodity, the assembly line manufacturing process should have no differentiation on the quality or success of the automobile’s production in the market place. Product differentiation in the market place would have to be through other methods, such as marketing, design or other non assembly related methods.

Now here I am, reading The Long Conversation* about maximizing business value from IT and Enterprise Systems;

..the third effect is a new basis for competition in industries. As ES are becoming a common technology to every company in some industries (e.g. energy, automotive, and high-tech), the basis for competition in these industries may change dramatically.

To me?

They could have left out the ‘may’ change dramatically. And it is not just those three industries either.

* The Long Conversation Maximizing Business Value fro Information Technology Investment

Oswaldo Lorenzo, Peter Kawalek, Gasto Gonzalez &  Boumediene Ramdani

2011 Palgrave-macmillan ISBN 978-0-230-29788-3

When Software Licensing Forces Your Decisions

I’ve got a story here that leaves me a little bit frustrated.

First? A little background: We are currently in the process of replacing an ageing accounting system with a newer, more modern system. (Our current system is older than my son, and he is 17)

Like most enterprise tools, this new system has a multitude, and variety, of different user licensing options. Certain levels of license give full access to the tool, other levels of license allow a device to access it, and other levels of license just allow fringe access to particular pieces.

And as you may have guessed, the more access a particular individual requires to the tool, the more expensive that license is. And that is where my frustration comes in.

For every one of our processes and requirements, we have to determine whether the task can be done as economically as possible regarding those licenses. For example, if we allow a road warrior to input his expense claim; does that mean he needs the full-boat license that costs as much as a small car? Because if it does, the hell with it, we will have to change our processes and have that expense claim submitted some other way.

This tool is an accounting package- and as such? Yes, we pay the full boat license price for the accounting team and the people need to do the deep dive into the software. But having to review each and everything we are trying to do with an eye to seeing if it escalates the price of the license required is very frustrating.

As a small to medium business, it severely changes the language of the business case to add hundreds of thousands of dollars in license costs, simply to enable somebody to submit an expense claim or other minor piece of work.

The small to medium business take away

Enterprise class software can be expensive. And having to fight through these licensing battles makes it just more so.

Have you experienced this? Let me know!

 

BYOD, Consumer IT, Asia is Winning

We can call it bring your own device, (BYOD) or the  consumerization of IT, (CoIT) and pundits can debate the semantic differences between the two.

The days of your employer providing you with its company supplied Blackberry, really, really, seem to be over. The iPhone, iPad, Samsung Galaxy S, all of these devices are accessing our networks, are accessing e-mail, and in some cases there they are even replacing computers. And often, you won’t own them – your employees will.

Here’s the thing. When it comes to devices accessing your network, at the most  basic level, there are two primary risks involved. One risk is simply a technical risk. Technical risk is the technical issues which include security of the device and the data that may be on it.

Here is the second risk, let’s call this risk management risk. Management risk is not the security of the device, it is not the ability to remotely wipe the device if an employee leaves, it is not ensuring that corporate policies are maintained.

Management risks can be defined as a risk that can affect the company’s business, brand, or continuing operations.

For example, your star sales representative is using his or her personally owned iPhone for business. Okay, let’s assume the worst, that he or she has left your employ for a competitor. And as for your your largest client?

Well, they probably have his or her cellular number on speed dial, so who is your client going to reach when they call that cellular number? Hint it won’t be you!

And to me, this management risk is the far more serious risk than the technical risk.

And this is where Asia is winning!

Let me back up a moment, most of us have seen them, the “brains” or intelligence of these devices is located on the tiny little subscriber identity module, or ‘SIM’ card that we slide into the phone or tablet.

To me it seems obvious: Since this little card, which is basically just a microcomputer chip, is the key to the phone- why would it not be standard that a phone could be purchased that had two of these little SIM slots available? In other words,  I could bring my personal phone to work as a new employee, and then be handed a corporate SIM card that contains the corporate phone number. And when I leave? The employer takes back the corporate owned SIM card.

Problem solved! One, single phone. But two separate numbers, two separate security policies and arrangements.

And here’s the rub, I was talking with a senior executive with an Asian background who let me know that in many places in Asia, having two SIM cards in a phone is a common occurrence. It is already available. It is already there!

Why can’t we get that capability here?

As I mentioned, the technical risks involving data obtained or manipulated through phones and tablets is becoming more and more reduced, this ability to have two SIM cards in one phone would greatly reduce that management risk as well.

So here is a call to the Chief Information Officers at our large corporations, push our North American vendors to match what is already happening in Asia

ITIL – Without the ‘Word’

I’ve written about ITIL quite a bit on this blog, and in fact I am using ITI L in an IT service management form in this new role of mine, but here’s a little secret; I don’t think I’ve used the word more than a dozen times.

OK, OK, ITIL  is an anagram, for IT Infrastructure Library, not a word. (yes, I know!)

Here’s the thing, our organization already has a strong engineering and project management framework in various processes and disciplines. So let me ask you a question? Does it make sense for me to try to teach a new language, a new discipline or a new protocol, or just continue to use the words and language that we are already using?

Language, and words are powerful devices. And for us the language and the words already exist.

As a business we have a strong understanding of lessons learned, a strong understanding of risk reduction and mitigation, and we already have ISO 9000 certified processes.

Perhaps as we make our first steps away from the little baby steps that we are currently doing I may change my mind about the terminology, the words, the semantics, but for now?

ITIL is predicated on learning problems from incidents that occur, so what is the difference if I ask what lesson did we learn from that incident?

For me?

I’ll stick with the words, the terms, and the language that we, as a business, already know.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Real SMB IT: VoIP

Voice over Internet Protocol – Most commonly shortened to VoIP. As a small to medium enterprise, are you using Voice over IP? Or have you had frustrating issues and trouble with a VoIP system?

Voice over IP is simply digitizing telecommunications data and allowing us to communicate using the same Internet technologies that permit us to visit web sites or send email.

While there are many benefits to using VoIP, there is also one large caveat.

That caveat is that VoIP requires a more stable and reliable Internet network connection than simple email does to operate properly.

To give an example, if you access a web page, you may not even notice if there is a small delay as a picture or small piece content shows up a little bit slower than other pieces of the site. In fact, the Internet communications ‘Language’ or ‘Protocols’ assumed that there would be delays or missing information and are designed to correct them automatically.

While a web browser may not care if a small piece of data is delayed. Well, VoIP cares very much about those delays. These little delays have interesting names such as jitter and latency – but they all mean something is slowing down!

Each delay caused by jitter or latency may be small, but cumulatively those delays can effectively destroy a VoIP communications call. This is simply because our spoken words do not take well to delays. (Have you ever tried listening to a radio station that is just beyond the range of your radio receiver?)

And here is when it can be tough identifying issues with VoIP, what makes it more difficult is that these delays we are talking about are not just delays in your own office, but delays in every device that exists between the telephone we hold in our hands, to the recipient of the phone call.

One of our teams experienced this problem first hand. VoIP performance from their hosted provider was very poor. The VoIP system was a constant source of frustration. Fortunately, their VoIP provider had the ability to supply us with some monitoring data that identified this issue for us.

If you look at the picture below, each of the small green blocks you see shows shows network delays, each small bump of green would cause an issue with a VoIP call, and the locations where the green blocks look like hills would have left the VoIP system pretty much unusable. (click on the image to enlarge it)

Here is the key piece though, if you look at the ‘Last 30 Hours’ frame in the picture – you will see that these delays continue to occur in the middle of the night when no staff members were in the office! This frame demonstrates that it is not only the devices we can control – but devices outside of our direct control that can affect successful implementation of a VoIP system.

In summary, Voice over IP systems can be a fantastic business tool, however care must be taken to ensure that the network connectivity supporting the system is as stable as possible.

Jitter and Latency

Order Taker or Solution Maker

A good read by by Eric Brown titled; Are you building an “order taker” or “solution maker” environment?. Now, Eric writes for IT Professionals, however for any executive or general manager in the small to medium business space, I urge you to read it as well. (And I would like to add one more thing to Mr. Brown’s post!)

The IT teams in most SME’s are Order Takers. They may not know it, and they may not really think about it, but orders come from executives or committees that provide marching orders for some new server or tool. IT just chips in and gets it done. (usually quite well too)

We can consider a spectrum, with Order Taker one one side – and primarily being in a reactive posture, then moving to the Solution Maker on the other side of the spectrum which we can be consider as being in a proactive posture. But allow me to be quite blunt, moving an IT team from Order Taker to Solution Maker is not a linear event.

Moving to the Solution Maker side of the spectrum requires organizational maturity levels that are orders of magnitude higher, perhaps even logarithmically higher than the organizational maturity required at the Order Taker side of the spectrum.

And I would argue that the first step for moving across that spectrum is for IT to have a true plan, and then be able to provide feedback and options when these Order Taker initiatives arise. Without a formal plan, you never will get beyond the Order Taker side of the spectrum.

Let me ask you a few questions, the last time you decided to purchase a large ‘IT system’ such as Service Management, Financial Management, that good ‘ole boy ‘ERP’ system, or any larger technology tool, did you….

1) Have someone draft a requirements plan?

2) Have all business units add their ‘must have’ bits and pieces that they are adamant they need?

3) Then nod sagely when a vendor describes the mysteries of a ‘gap analysis’ and listen to them solemnly state that they certainly can do all of that for you?

Oh yes, one last little question; Did your IT Team ever give you a bit of feedback (positive or negative), push back, or any other method of raising caution signs?

Here is an example that you, dear Sir or Madam have probably done yourself……

You decided to renovate one of the rooms of your home, came up with an idea or two, added in a rough budget limit…..

Ahhhh! then the real shopping begins, and upgrade after upgrade leaves that initial budget and plan  blowing in the wind….

Yes! that project that started as ‘reface the cabinetry and replace the sink’ ended up with granite counter tops, tile flooring, new cabinetry and the latest high end appliances…..

Providing feedback and even some argument that you are deviating from plan may not be critical with kitchen appliances, but it can be costly in IT.

The first improvement in your IT level of organizational maturity?

Is to get your IT team clearly articulating that those business unit ‘wish lists’ are going to cost money – lots of money, specifically if they are wandering off of your plan. As one example, when one Vice President was advised that a tiny part of one wishlist alone was six figure dollar amounts to implement:  “No damned way I’m spending that …” was the response.

Moving across the spectrum from order taker to solution maker is hard work, but to start, you need a plan, and you need your IT Teams to able to demonstrate when, and even argue, if you are beginning to deviate from that plan.

A Bad “Green IT” Survey

I received a call from some survey shop about sustainability in IT purchasing and sourcing, that current ‘Green IT” buzzword. Unfortunately the survey questions were really poorly designed.

Each question was simply answer ’1′ for low priority to a high of ’5′ for maximum priority on questions such as: “Do you give preference to purchasing IT assets with lower power consumption..” And; “Do you give preference to vendors that are improving their sustainability..”

Every one of my answers were at the low end of their scale. So at the end of their survey they will collate the data and my response will look like I’m in the “strip mine Earth now, get the other planets later” camp.

And nothing could be farther from the truth.

I am concerned about ‘green’ initiatives and sustainability. In fact at home I have three composters, and with a tip of the hat to comedian Jerry Seinfelds ‘Soup Nazi’ episode on his popular televesion show, my family call me the ‘Recycle Nazi’ as I grope through the garbage making sure nothing recyclable gets missed.

So, if I am concerned about sustainability, why were my answers at the low end of the scale? Why is purchasing assets with ‘lower power consumption’ not high on my priority list?

To answer this, let’s take a look at technology. Not technology in general – but technology in your car.

It was just a few years ago that if you wanted built in GPS navigation systems or hands free bluetooth capability for your phone, you shelled out large dollars for top end premium cars with the built in Navi and phone systems. However,as this technology improved and matured, its price has dropped to the point that entry level cars have equal to (or even superior) technologies than their premium priced brethren.

And this analogy holds true in my purchasing of IT assets. Powerful environmental groups push manufacturers to improve their supply chain sustainability. Global 2000 sized businesses with IT assets in the 10′s of thousands also push vendors to improve power consumption. Companies of that size can save millions of dollars in electrical costs with a percentage point or two improvement in power usage. And they will willingly pay that premium price.

For me? with a meagre handful of computer servers? The percentage point or two of power saved (and my lack of scale) at that premium price would not pay for the premium price, let alone provide a positive return on electrical usage.

But here is the thing, today BigCompany is paying a premium for that technology. And when I buy my next server three months from now?

That premium technology will already hve trickled down into the vendors ‘entry level’ products.

The servers I have right now are far more efficiant than the ones I bought three years ago, and three years from now I know that they will be even more efficient.

That is why a percentage point or two improvement in ‘Green’ is a low priority for me. As a smaller business, the heavy lifting on that front is being done by the CIO at BigCompany and and the staff at various environmental groups. And I benefit from their work – Me? I don’t need to worry about it……

On Stories

First? I have to let you know that this post was written the old fashioned way; using pen and paper!

It was also written at 36 thousand feet with 1413 miles of 1780 left in flight number one of a five day, 5 city (plus 9 flights) road trip. For all of you uber travellers, yes I have a laptop with with me, but in the cheek by jowl, fully loaded cattle class confines of an Embraer 190, well, it means I really, really don’t want to try digging it out of the 18 cramped inches of foot space.

Just before I left for this whirlwind trip, the image you see below was re-circulating around the interwebs. (it seems to circle around every year or so – which is another story…)

You can click the image to see it full size, if you don’t want to; it pokes fun at our business technology and IT. (justifiably so) You wanted a tire swing on rope on that huge tree in the yard, the picture then pokes fun at what the analysts, architects and the like translate that simple swing into.

Start with a story!

In our business technology – there are bundles of binders, reams of paper, and untold numbers of words compiled into documents we call requirements, or standard operations procedures. (and that is only two examples)

And I cannot even begin to number the cases I have seen where the minutia of these documents led to confusion, frustration and failure as different interpretations of the same minutia from the same meeting expand and balloon into paralysing chaos……

It does not need to be this way.

Step number one: What is the story? Not a long, drawn out spiel, but a story! in the below image that simple story would be: “I want a good ‘ole fashioned tire swing on that there Oak in the yard…”

A simple story of why. A simple story of the end result. When teams are stuck arguing about the minutia in the thousand pages of requirements, the story can bring bring reality back into view.

Do I walk up to my CEO and ask him to tell me a story? Sure you may chuckle – but I don’t usually do that. (Although I have in some cases)

But I can ask questions;

“In a perfect world where what you want will appear tomorrow, what would that look like….”

“What is the ultimate business goal you see after this initiative….”

Many of us have heard the terms looking through different lenses, or re-framing the the conversation. I can tell you that nothing helps change those lenses or re-frame that conversation as quickly as a story. To give an example, I was talking with the president of a SME a while ago that was lamenting the trouble he was having considering ‘ERP’ (Enterprise Resource Planning) software to help him grow his business to the next level. After just a minute or so of casual talk about his ‘story’, I personally don’t think ‘ERP’ software will do him any good. He fixes and repairs (services) incredibly complex machinery. To re-frame the conversation; in my opinion, what he should be looking at is a good service management application that can track parts inventory, serial numbers, etc. Not a generic ERP system.

As management expert and author Tom Peters has written, a story is more ‘engaging’ and that includes;

“..a question that as readily applies to a revised business process”

I have to agree with that…..

Swing

Real SMB IT: Computer Hardware Fails, Plan For It

We all know that after a certain number of years and miles that our cars will begin to break down more often. Many of us know someone who is a master do-it-yourself person that can choose to keep making repairs until that clunker becomes an antique classic. But for most of us, when the cost of repair and the risk of breakdown reach that tipping point, well – we look at replacing the car.

When it comes to your computer hardware, I don’t recommend that do-it-yourself idea, classic computer hardware belongs only in museums.

One benefit we have with cars, there are statistical references that we can base our decisions on, for example, we know the higher the mileage the more likely things are to break. Unfortunately we can’t measure our computer use in miles. Vendor marketing teams may try and convince us that the server your financial tool runs on will last forever. But it definitely won’t.

And that server holding your financial records and data is running 24 hours per day, 7 days a week.

We can debate what service life a server is. A quick search on Google shows dozens of conflicting arguments.

 The SMB Takeaway

In the last couple of weeks, three separate small businesses have told me about their computer server failing.

Gone.

Dead as the proverbial doornail

It will happen to you – it is not a question of ‘if’. It is a question of ‘when’.

Plan for it.

Photo Credit Stephen A. Wolfe via flickr