Zen and the Art of IT Management

Mar 7, 2005

Thomas Vernersson

No good deed goes unpunished. Surely not if you're an IT administrator.

It's your job to maintain order and impose discipline, which is no easy task when you're at odds with a user population that chafes when limits are imposed. End users by nature want autonomy but demand immediate attention when things go awry.

The famous novelist Gustave once said that a writer should be like God in his universe -- everywhere felt, but nowhere seen.

While identifying and fixing a system problem is a relatively simple affair, it's not quite so simple when you have live human beings on the other end who want to know why their remote access to the network is restricted, why they can't access certain Web sites, why certain e-mails are not going through, or why they can't save MP3s to their hard drive.

And, while it's the IT team that makes today's digitally dependent organizations go, the fact is IT exists to serve the user population. Many of the senior IT professionals I know or have encountered over the years lament that IT is seldom fully integrated into the organizational culture.

IT and end users may occupy the same playing field, but if end users are the players, IT staff are the referees.

The simple answer is to provide a framework wherein IT and end users act as partners. In any partnership, compromises are struck; each party cedes something to make it work. But from an IT standpoint, how does one compromise when any little thing -- a momentary lapse -- is all that it takes to bring an enterprise to its knees?

The answer is hiding in plain sight. Consider the way some of today's more progressive human resources (HR) groups interact with their employee population.

Their first order of business is to establish communications protocols and let it be known how information can be obtained, questions answered, and procedures followed (i.e., benefits enrollment).

HR maintains constant communication with the workforce (alerting them to policy changes, etc.). In the last several years, HR has widely embraced the employee self-service model. Such systems are used to keep employees aware of company policy, enables them to view their 401K plans, and make benefits elections -- all without requiring intervention from the HR staff.

The IT organization would do well to borrow from the HR model. The first step is to open lines of communication to convey the need for partnership, the understanding that IT and end users are working toward a shared goal (i.e., remaining competitive), and that from this point forward, policies will be developed and put in place that promote the sharing of responsibilities and tasks.

IT can begin this process by holding internal seminars, sending out regular internal newsletters, making end users aware of FAQs (and information portals) that help them help themselves resolve minor issues that crop up (when to reboot, how to find files that you thought were lost when the app crashed, etc.).

This will go a long way in forging a better IT-end user relationship where both parties act cooperatively.

Of course, there are areas where IT must retain complete control to ensure that there are safeguards in place that prevent threats to network performance (viruses and the like), not to mention minimizing legal exposure.

It should also be noted with an expanded sense of "ownership" over their IT resources, end users are also held accountable for their actions.

The approach I've outlined is something of an oxymoron, or "Zen-like," in its uniting of two seemingly opposite concepts into a simple, effective solution: increasing your control across the enterprise requires ceding degrees of control to end users in the (limited) management of their IT resources.

This may not necessarily put you and your organization on the path to enlightenment, but it will go a long way toward putting you and your end-user population on the same track.

Thomas Vernersson is president and co-founder of Northern, a global software company specializing in storage resource management.


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