Stories by Jennifer Kavur

What users want from IT departments

If the question "What do you want from me?" screams in your head throughout the day, it might be time to re-assess the relationship you have with the rest of your organization."
One of the first things IT shops can do to improve their relationships with the rest of their organization is to communicate what it is they are doing, according to Jennifer Perrier-Knox, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Ltd.
IT tends to be "somewhat self-pitying," she said. They think that nobody understands them, that they work so hard yet nobody knows it, and that nobody realizes how long things take, she said.
But the responsibility "really rests at IT's feet," she pointed out. IT tends to do a poor job of communicating what they are doing, keeping stakeholders in the loop and reporting back on what they've done, where they are at and why it is important, she said.
One basis for problematic relationships is that IT often operates a "black box," said Perrier-Knox. "With a lack of information, people are going to come to conclusions with whatever scraps and piece of information they have," she said.
Another thing IT can do is improve their help desk services. Because the help desk exists as the primary interface between IT and the rest of the organization, it is also a primary point where IT can alter its reputation, said Perrier-Knox.
"For the average end user, the help desk is their only real point of contact, so they are going to form an opinion based on those interactions. That is basically all they have to go with," she said.
Overlooking the help desk and leaving the opinion-building in the hands of the end users as opposed to taking control of it can be a bit of a gamble, according to Perrier-Knox. "You actually want to do something proactive and constructive and with intent to build the reputation," she said.
A bad reputation can have further implications down the road, she pointed out, such as problems getting co-operation from other groups in the organization and being seen as just a cost centre versus a strategic enabler.
"(One) big benefit of shaping up the help desk and having it being welcoming, responsive and effective at solving problems" is that it gives IT visibility and credibility in the organization, she said.
It's important for IT to try to meet the needs and wants of end users because IT at its heart is a service organization and the primary recipients of that service are the business users in that organization, said Perrier-Knox.
"If they are not providing high-quality service in delivering on the needs of the service recipients, then they are failing at their job," she said.
Seeing the relationship from the other person's perspective can also help. The following are suggestions from end users on how IT can better meet their needs and wants.
Exhibit good bedside manners
Gary Babcock, president and CEO of Mississauga, Ont.-based medical office automation software developer HTN Inc., likens IT managers to physicians. "Your bedside manner has just as much importance as your capability in treating a disease," he said. End users want to know what happened, how to prepare to fix it and what they can do to avoid it in the future, he explained.
If IT doesn't have the time to teach users how to do it, "at least they can make you feel you understand what is wrong with your computer and a lot of them don't do that. They just want to fix your problem and get out of there. That's not good bedside manners," said Babcock.
Treat everyone as equals
Employees may get treated differently from IT depending on which department they are coming from, according to Lorraine Lanham, manager at a major financial company based in the U.S.
When she worked with the executive office, for example, her relationship with IT was great. "They got everything done quickly, there were never any issues," she said. But the relationship declined after she transferred to another group. "It seemed like it took forever to get things done," she said.
Explain what they did wrong so they don't do it again
When you run into a problem, you want it fixed really fast, but you also want to know how to solve it should it happen again, noted Julia Seltmann, application consultant at a major health-care diagnostics company in the U.S. "I'll call in for the same problem over and over again, because they didn't tell me how I screwed it up in the first place," she said.This is one of the weaker areas of IT, according to Seltmann. After asking what she did wrong and how she could fix it the next time so she wouldn't have to call in, the help desk suggested that should another problem arise, she should just call back again.
Own your projects
The ideal relationship with IT, according to Lanham, is when you have a designated IT person following through on a project with you. "Basically, just having someone who would own it," she says. Part of the frustration with IT occurs when you reach out to someone, they say it has been transferred to someone else and you end up chasing different people, she says.
Avoid speaking in slang
"The ideal IT guy or girl is one who can take a complicated idea and explain it in terms that the average individual can understand," says Babcock. Average people don't know certain technical terms, they don't know what they are doing wrong and they don't know how to fix it, he pointed out.
Assign the call to the right person
One thing Seltmann really appreciates about the IT help line provided at her company, is that there is one person who is "really good" at every application on her computer; as opposed to generalists who try to fix all the problems.
If you have a problem with PowerPoint, for example, they have a person assigned to PowerPoint who knows everything about PowerPoint. When they get your call, they call you back and are able to fix it fast, she says.
Some people say having to wait for IT to call you back is a big problem, but it's better to wait and have the right person call back than have the wrong person try to fix it immediately, Seltman says.
Provide timelines and open communication
There isn't much of a difference between the needs versus the wants from IT, according to Lanham. "What I would like is just open communication," she says, adding that her expectations would then be set appropriately.
When a project is requested, "let me know from the get-go or within a short amount of time how long it is actually going to take, even if it is longer than I would like," she suggested. This includes providing updates as the project moves along and reasons why there may be delays.
Explain that "it will take longer because of A, B and C, so I always have the right expectations," says Lanham.
Keep the surveys simple
Seltmann suggested scaling down help desk feedback surveys to just a couple questions or issuing those with dozens of questions periodically, as opposed to expecting end users to fill out lengthy reports on every interaction they have with the help desk. The first couple of times she did fill them out, but now she just deletes them, she says. "It's the opposite reaction they want. Even though I'm happy with the job they did."
Time is of the essence
The ideal IT manager is someone who knows that time is of the essence in fixing problems, according to Babcock. They can't wait until after the weekend or the next day, because having a system down can be calamitous and ultimately lead to worse problems later on, he says. "Loyalty and dedication to the job is important."

Understanding the eight levels of analytics

Analytics is "the most used and abused term in the marketplace right now", according to Jim Davis, senior vice-president and chief marketing officer of SAS Institute.
Speaking at SAS's Premier Business Leadership Series in Las Vegas, Davis questioned whether there is "a vendor or supplier out there today that doesn't have analytics".
"Everybody has analytics," he said. But what they are actually offering in terms of analytic capacity in support of solving business problems remains in question.
"So you bring all the data together and you put it in some form in which the end user can gain access to it, but what are you doing with it?" he asked.
There are eight levels of analytics, according to Davis. The first four encompass what he considers "the classic definition of business intelligence" and what the majority of organisations are actually doing.
What the first four levels all have in common is they look at past activity, Davis pointed out. "They support reactive decision-making ... understanding the facts after things occurred and are now reacting too," he said.
The remaining four levels support pro-active decision-making and keep innovation and optimisation on track. These are predictive in nature and keep things "headed in the right direction."
It is the last four that "are really going to help change the future" for business, said Davis said.
But analytics alone doesn't guarantee success for an organisation.
To actually solve business problems, companies must address areas of data integration, analytics, report the results and put it all in the context of a business solution, according to Davis.
While this requires a framework to capture data and allow people to gain access to that data on a consistent basis, "it's not about simply building a data warehouse and putting a BI front end on it", he said.
"It's not about going out and buying the fastest database or the coolest interface or the best piece of hardware. It's about solving a very focused business problem," he said.
1) Standard reports
Standard reports provide summary statistics and answer questions like, What happened? and When did it happen? said Davis. "That's analytics, but not enough."
2) Ad hoc reports
Ad hoc reports answer questions like, How many? How often? Where? he said. They provide a level of independence on desktops that allow an individual, for example, to see sales in a particular region or at a particular point in time, without needing to go to an IT governance counsel and wait three months for the result.
3) Query drill-downs
Query drill-downs answer questions like, Where exactly is the problem? and How do I find the answers? said Davis. This is for when an organisation wants to see not only the results, but what the results mean and what backs it up, he explained.
4) Alerts
Alerts answer question like, When should I react? and What actions are needed now? said Davis. "This is when you reach a particular threshold ... something changes from green to red, so you do something about it."
5) Statistical analysis
Statistical analysis answers the questions, Why is this happening? and What opportunities am I missing? he said. "You begin to take the data ... and you begin to understand why things are happening."
6) Forecasting
A popular level, forecasting answers questions like, What if these trends continue? How much is needed? When will it be needed?
7) Predictive modelling
Predictive modelling tells users what will happen next and how it will affect the business.
8) Optimisation
Optimisation answers the questions, How do we do things better? and What is the best decision for a complex problem? This includes areas such as price optimisation, markdown optimisation and size optimisation. This isn't just about cost-cutting and can be the difference between success and failure for an organisation, Davis noted.

Edmonton Police fight crime with IBM

Edmonton Police Services, responsible for over one million residents in Alberta, is one of the first police forces in Canada to use business analytics software from IBM for law enforcement.
The project began as an effort to "dig down" into police data to provide accountability to the public and public dollars, said John Warden, BI project team lead for Edmonton Police Services. "We spent the first three years of our project getting our data really stable and accurate so we could truly understand the public demand for policing services," he said.
This involved looking at calls to service from the public and how the police were responding to those calls in order to measure the organisation's efficiency and effectiveness.
"We want to measure what the public demand is to us so we have a clear understanding of whether we have enough resources and are supplying those resources in a timely and effective way," he said.
Now in its fourth year of development, the project has amassed enough data to identify crime trends and locations.
"We are very sure of our data, whether it be in calls for service or crime data and we are able to track crime now on a daily basis," said Warden.
This allows the police to know where to put their resources, as the system provides statistics at the neighbourhood level, Warden noted. If theft from vehicles, for example, is rising significantly in a particular neighbourhood compared to the same time frame last year, they can deploy more resources in that area, he said.
By spotting seasonal trends and other patterns in crime, the system also allows the police to put "the right sources at the right time" over the city, he said. "We can expect robberies, like most crime, begin to increase in the spring and peak out in the summer and begin to tail off in October and November," he said.
Business performance briefings are provided to the Edmonton Police Chief on a daily basis and this information is fed to commanders in the field, Warden noted. Stats from the BI data warehouse are also fed into a public neighborhood crime mapping system, which launched this summer and allows visitors to map crime in eight categories.
"There is a transparency and a consistency in how crime is being presented in the city ... we are not hiding anything and certainly wouldn't want to hide anything. We want to be as transparent as possible as an organisation (about) how we use and present data to support decision-making," he said.
Warden expects another two years are needed to get the past the project stage, but the system has already proven results.
When the city noticed an increase in arson in a particular area of the city, commanders were able to ask not only why it was happening but whether it was happening more than in previous years and expected to increase, said Warden. "We were able to ... create a project around in the city, and the commanders who are doing this in fact were able to mitigate this by making some significant arrests and stop that actual pattern in its tracks," he said.
The system also found a significant number of face-to-face robberies taking place on the city streets. "When people talk about robberies, they think of bank robbery or people going into a convenience store and committing a robbery, so it was surprising to discover the 80 percent of the robberies in Edmonton currently are personal robberies," said Warden.
Edmonton Police are now able look at where crime is happening based on the same time frame for last year and how crime is changing, said Warden. The next step, based on years of collected data, is being able to forecast or predict where crimes are going to take place, he said.
The end goal is the ability to place resources in advance, to put police into certain areas of the city because they predict crime will take place in that area and be able to mitigate that crime with the police presence, said Warden.
"Are we there yet? Absolutely not, but we are on the way to these final pieces of who, how and why, and (those are) going to be the exciting pieces for us as we move into 2010 — to cover off those final pieces of the picture so we have a total and complete picture of what's going on when it comes to preventing crime and victimisation in Edmonton," he said.
Edmonton Police is currently sharing the data with Alberta Justice and Edmonton Transit.
"As we move forward, we expect to be able to share better," said Warden.
IBM's work with the Edmonton Police is part the Smarter Cities initiative. "The programme was created to bolster economic vitality and the quality of life in cities and metropolitan areas by sparking new thinking and meaningful action across the city ecosystem," states IBM.
This includes bringing certain attributes of technology — like instrumentation of the web, the use of sensors and connections to databases — to the forefront to help people perform their roles in government, said Mark Cleverley, director of strategy for IBM's global government industry.
"Analytics as a discipline inside policing is being recognized across the world as a key tool for law enforcement staff and the reason for that is increasingly it is becoming an information business where there are many sources of information that can have relevance to decision-making," said Cleverley.
"If you can look at a series of data and discover, as Edmonton did, that certain kinds of events tend to happen at certain times of the year and perhaps in certain areas over and above others, then you can make some smart decisions about proactively putting resources out there to prevent things from happening instead of just responding to them," he said.

Facebook agreement with Canada will impact everyone

If having an affect on 250 million users around the world weren't enough, upcoming changes to Facebook Inc.'s privacy policies and practices are likely to spawn a chain reaction among all the other major social media sites, impact business marketing practices and address everyone who doesn't have a Facebook account.,"

ERP plus BI equals more value, says Aberdeen

Combine enterprise resource planning (ERP) with business intelligence (BI) and you have the "perfect storm" for improving performance and visibility in information management strategies, according to a new study from Aberdeen Group Inc.

How to cut server, storage costs effectively

Servers and storage services take up a "significant portion" of most IT department budgets, according to Info-Tech Research Group.
The London-based firm has released a report outlining specific techniques IT managers can use to reduce server and storage costs and improve the performance of technologies already in place.
The report, "Reducing Cost-to-Serve: Server & Storage Services," provides 18 recommendations, some aimed at achieving to short- and medium-term goals, and others targeted at long-term goals.
Immediate tactics include wrapping up in-progress server consolidation projects, applying "quick-fixes" to cooling costs and extending the life of servers.
"For organisations that have not started to virtualise, do not replace old servers before their useful life is over. If network bandwidth or storage throughput is bottlenecked, but the CPU operates at less than 80% utilisation, then this server does not yet need to be replaced," the report states.
Don't warrant every server
Another short-term suggestion is "removing extended warranties and maintenance agreements on non-critical servers," which can save US$577 (NZ$1,000) per server, according to Info-Tech.
Mid-term tactics focus on hardware purchases and vendor contracts; recommendations include purchasing equipment that is "good enough" for business needs and opting for refurbished hardware that can save "up to 80 percent of the price of new gear".
Other mid-term suggestions include redeploying mid-life servers, right-sizing IT equipment and using a storage area network.
"A SAN (storage area network) extends the useful life of servers as it allows for rapid migration of data and applications to new servers and reduces the risk of data loss from failed disk drives on aging servers. Use Host Bus Adapters (HBAs) to offload CPU file processing," the report recommends.
Nine long-term tactics are also presented, but unlike the other techniques, they involve upfront costs. "These savings may be interpreted as cost avoidance rather than actual reduction," Info-Tech points out.
The tactic most often overlooked by IT departments is purchasing refurbished equipment for servers, networks and workstations, says Jennifer Perrier-Knox, senior research analyst at Info-Tech.
According to a recent Info-Tech survey, 68 percent of IT respondents have not considered refurbished gear as a cost-cutting opportunity.
"That was a surprise because there are excellent deals to be had from vendors who sell refurbished equipment. Some stuff hasn't even come out of the box and these things are at a 50 percent discount," says Perrier-Knox.
Another technique enterprises tend to ignore is downsizing the application portfolio, she points out. In many organisations, and a lot of applications are redundant and some aren't used very often, she says.
"One of the most surprising results of the study was how little variation there was between different organisations in terms of the priorities of cost reduction," says Perrier-Knox.
While enterprises with varying revenues, numbers of employees and size of IT departments typically apply different tactics to reduce costs, Info-Tech found very little variation based on size, she says.
The most popular cost-reduction techniques tend to be those which IT can change "behind-the-scenes" without entering extensive negotiations with the business, while those requiring interaction with individuals outside of IT seemed to be less popular, she says.
"Areas that are not being explored very much carry what we would call a 'high hassle factor,'" says Perrier-Knox.
Virtualisation not a panacaea
According to the report, IT managers should avoid the following four mistakes: redeploying the wrong servers, deduping without testing, taking an ad-hoc approach to virtualisation and harbouring false hopes for virtualisation -- such as expecting to save on licensing costs.
"One of the things that can happen in times of economic downturn, especially if there is a rush to make cost reduction changes, is that mistakes can get made and the impact of the changes being made are sometimes unforeseen," says Perrier-Knox.
Harbouring false hopes for virtualisation is a definite concern, according to Dave Pearson, senior analyst, Storage, IDC Canada. "A lot of people hear virtualisation and immediately think that's a cost reduction technique."
But in the short term, virtualisation generally requires more resources in terms of people and dollars, Pearson says. "For the most part, virtualisation is really more of a business process optimisation technique right now than a cost-cutting technique," he says.
Companies that are able to either retire or no longer replenish a lot of equipment because they are able to virtualise those servers can certainly see immediate cost savings, says Pearson.
"But for the most part, the difficulty in finding really great talent in virtualisation as well as the learning curve that every corporation goes through getting into a new technology means they are not really saving a lot of money up front," he says.
According to the report, the deciding factor for virtualisation is the number of physical servers supported by the enterprise. "As a rule of thumb, 30 servers or more leads to the greatest and most demonstrable cost savings," states Info-Tech.
Legthen storage lifecycles
One popular cost-cutting technique, from a policy standpoint, is extending storage equipment lifecycles from four years to five and a half or six years, Pearson says.
"From the technology side, there are quite a few technologies that are getting a lot of acceptance right now in terms of reducing the amount of data in the workplace," he says.
"A lot of people still aren't totally familiar [with deduplication]," according to Pearson. "It looks for commonalities between files — either actual duplicate copies of files themselves or duplicate sections of data within those files — and removes them just leaving pointers in their place."
Another technique is the adoption of lower cost technologies themselves, Pearson continues. "A lot of people are putting off Fibre Channel SAN purchases because they can't invest in the overall infrastructure required to support it. Maybe in the short term they're going to invest in a NAS or an iSCSI solution," he says.