There ain’t no shortcuts to professionally-managed IT

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My business Prussia.Net always has clients who resist any long-term IT planning. While researching potential suppliers to handle our increasing workload, I stumbled across the best explanation I’ve ever seen for how the process should work.

Many SOHO and very small business seem to have no plan for their IT at all. Most, actually. They just call for help when something breaks, and only replace computers and other equipment when it’s completely dead. They complain that their computers are slow or unreliable, and yet resist spending anything on preventative maintenance or minor upgrades which could deliver substantial improvements.

Zern Liew and I have discussed the causes of this before. However the two key elements are, I think, a lack of understanding of IT issues and the perception that doing things professionally will be expensive.

Last year Australian IT services company First Focus‘s website presented a 3-phase model for developing professionally-managed IT. They removed it when they renovated the site, which I think was a mistake. But here it is anyway, thanks to The Wayback Machine

Learning - Stabilisation - Support

In the Learning phase, [we] will meet with your management team to hear about you. What are your priorities? What would you like to be able to do? How much do you want to spend? How much are IT problems costing you right now? Based on this information, we will create a proposal for moving your business towards a “best practice” IT environment. The proposal will include fixed costs, recommendations and alternatives, and we will discuss it with you in plain English to map out what’s going to happen next. During this phase, we will also distribute a survey to all members of staff in your organisation. The results of this survey will be used as a baseline for measuring improvements in your organization’s Network.

The Stabilisation phase is all about ensuring your network meets a minimum level of reliability and usefulness for your staff. A poorly designed or cobbled together network is only going to cause you an endless series of problems. Our goal is to prevent problems from recurring by fixing the root causes, rather than the symptoms. Critical problem areas are addressed first, and typically this phase may include the delivery of one or more Focused Solutions to address key business objectives.

The Support phase is all about ensuring your cost-benefit. This “phase” is more a continual process, where First Focus ensures your network stays highly organized, documented, and stable. Preventative maintenance, Software updates, and Staff training are the hallmarks of this process. A regular strategic IT review is also conducted in order for First Focus to report to your management team, and in order for the management team to keep First Focus aware of any new business objectives or requirements. We will also survey your staff on a regular basis to help you measure any improvement in your organisation’s Network.

Very sensible stuff. The killer for me, though, was their final paragraph:

There are no shortcuts to this process; we can’t maintain your network to the standards we are satisfied with, until it is in a stable state. And we can’t move your network to a stable state until we understand the business processes and objectives your network must support.

100% correct. Businesses can’t ignore planning and maintenance and then whinge about poor reliability and sudden unexpected expenses when things need to be fixed. And yet this is precisely how most small businesses seem to run. It’s like getting a dodgy second-hand car, failing to check the water levels or change the oil when recommended, and then being surprised when the engine blows up.

Even though First Focus dropped that explanation from their website, they’re definitely a contender for Prussia.Net’s outsourced IT support. Expect my call soon, chaps.

3 Replies to “There ain’t no shortcuts to professionally-managed IT”

  1. Unfortunately there is also an attitude in some companies — often the ones that are large enough to start having their own IT staff — that IT is just something that sucks up money that ought to be spent on the ‘real’ business! Then they wonder why they have problems.

    In fairness, though, you also need the right people doing it. At another law firm a similar size to mine, they have periods of up to three days once or twice every year where the computers are taken down for ‘maintenance.’ They seem to accept that as the usual thing! Perhaps it is, but not on my watch.

    I regard IT as an integral part of my business, and without computers for three days, I might as well shut the doors and send all the admin staff home, and divert the phone to a message service!!! My IT is managed by someone who has a background in ‘mission critical’ systems — airlines, hospitals, etc.

    My ‘new’ network at work has just had its second birthday. Not a single hour of downtime in that two years, because it was planned properly and is well supported.

    Now in the great scheme of things it is a small job — Server and ten PCs that run XP, Word, Outlook, Firefox, and little else, with two users using MYOB.

    BUT, the planning means that:

    1. XP was implemented with roaming profiles, and all data (including ‘My Documents’ for each user) is stored on the server
    2. XP, instead of having all of its useless bloated features, was configured to look and feel like the Win98 environment it replaced (increasing PC performance and reducing training time)
    3. All the Word templates are centrally stored and managed with master templates (containing Universal data like return address and the Christmas Holiday message)
    4. Outlook syncs with five Palm OS handhelds that all sync the same calendar and address book, but each users own email and to-do lists.

    My staff went home one Friday night and came in Monday morning to find a whole new system that required them to make almost no adjustments — file locations, custom Word Toolbar items, custom Print dialog boxes, Court diary and interview room bookings all seemed very familiar to them.

    Most of them of course have no idea how much tweaking and testing went into making it so seamless!

  2. Than you Simon Slade for raising a great point — that many businesses treat cost- and profit-centres differently. Cost-centres like IT and HR are where cost-minimisations need to occur. And profit-centres, the “real business” (because business is only about making money) are the real heroes. Typical of the compartmentalised thinking, few of these businesses see the correlation between this narrow arrogant view and the less than optimal performance of their businesses.

  3. @Simon Slade: You’re spot on. The attitude that IT just costs money seems to be correlated with the decision-maker not having any real understanding of IT and what can be achieved. Not that they need the technical knowledge but, as I’ve posted before, they need to know how to manage IT issues in their business.

    And yes, the right people are critical. The mission-critical style of building systems is something which comes from having been trained a certain way — and from focusing on the desired result in terms of reliability (uptime requirement) and working backwards from there.

    I was particularly annoyed with one employee who, when being shown how to “follow procedure” to achieve best-practice security and reliability, would always resist. The system was back online, problem solved — why “waste time” going through the checklist?

    @Zern: The odd one to me is always that costs must be reduced. In some business situations that might be true. In others, it might be appropriate to increase spending. Once the business infrastructure has been provided, and is supporting the staff and systems to make $X profit, maybe X can be doubled with only a little extra spending because base costs are already covered and economies of scale kick in.

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