We all complain about lack of resources when executing our plans. Manpower availability is always an issue and we wish we had the right manpower to complete our assignments on time or to take up new initiatives. During good times our people leave looking for greener pastures and at the same time recruiting new staff becomes so much more difficult.
The responsibility falls on CIOs and it depends on the way they manage their staffing. They sometimes are unable to deal with this issue adequately, either in the distribution of responsibilities or in deploying the right people on tasks or in their inability to get approval for additional manpower. Let me discuss a few steps that a CIO can take.
Organization structure: The CIO should define a proper organizational (org) structure for his department in keeping with the IT strategy and plans that he may have formulated. The org structure should be in line with organization’s strategy and business priorities and should be formalized and approved by the management. CIOs quite often prefer to stay put with the existing staff and work structure to maintain a status quo but this is what lands them in trouble. The new structure could be very different from what exists today and that would be the organization’s need. It would be inappropriate to start cutting, sieving and filling positions in haste as this could disturb the current work arrangement. The new structure is a statement of intent and a direction which CIOs should aim to move towards, repairing the structure over time so that they get to the final objective in a reasonable time.
Identifying right people in right positions: Even if they define a structure, it may still be a challenge to have the right people in the right roles. I am reminded of my experience when I shifted one of my colleagues from the development team to infrastructure management group despite his protests. This person later blossomed into a valuable asset as he was an action oriented person and a hands-on individual who would roll up his sleeves to set right any problem and he thought of new ways of strengthening the infrastructure. He would just have languished if he had stayed in his earlier position. Similar was the case when I moved a person from portal and content management work to regular SQL programming. In short, when a person gets a role that suits his temperament, he shows excellence.
Dealing with the wrong people: We sometimes find wrong people in our setup. These may either be people who are unqualified, or those who simply do not have the capability or those with wrong attitudes. I am reminded of the advice of Jim Collins in his book ‘How the mighty fall’ when he says that when on a journey, don’t carry the wrong people on the bus – they should be off-loaded. He further says, ‘Having wrong people in positions brings in bureaucracy and decline’. Taking a cue from this, I would say that CIOs should either relocate them or give them an honorable exit in the larger interest of the group.
Training and development: Some of the staff members who are not up to mark can be made useful through targeted training or developmental workshops and courses. It is best to make best use of the existing resources rather than looking for new ones.
Recruitment: When the necessary expertise is not available within, it is best to recruit new talent from outside. The recruitment process should be handled with due seriousness by laying down job description, the desired profile of the candidate and his reporting relationship. Candidate should be chosen after careful assessment of his technical skills, behavioral traits and his cultural suitability. A new person should be inducted for the long run.
Right staffing is therefore of utmost importance for the function to carry forward its program with confidence and to build capability to make an impact in the organization.
IT departments in most organizations try to do its best to help organizations achieve their goals. Some of the IT departments are effective and some are not. Those who pursue their work with a purpose go farther than those who meander their way reacting to the situations as they arise. Those with purpose usually have a clear road map which is understood by most in the department as also by the users they serve. Let us understand how they achieve a clarity of purpose.
Good IT setups strive to define a mission for themselves and set out to achieve what they lay down as goals. This is a serious exercise and just not about writing an attractive statement and hanging it on the wall. They try to engage in serious discussion about what they are, how they are perceived by others, and what they want to become. I have found two types of such engagements in organizations. Some do this exercise because they are required to do so as per their company’s mandate and others do this of their own volition. I have been in both situations and I can state with confidence that the former case does not work; but when people carry out the study because they want to, they achieve excellence.
Such exercise requires considerable patience, understanding, ability for accepting criticism, knowledge of business, foresight and willingness to change. This is a process of enquiry and of redefining purpose and therefore needs participation and debate. Engaging an external consultant to do this work will be foolhardy because they cannot infuse enthusiasm and dedication in the group. However, to cover lack of internal expertise one can have a person as a guide or facilitator who can show them the way and ensure the group does not go astray. The group will have to debate and discover their strengths and opportunities and rededicate themselves to the task. Let us consider some ways to go over this exercise.
There are a few questions that we need to raise and answer. I am sharing these on the basis of my experience of going through this journey.
Who are we? This, is my opinion is the starting point where we try to understand ourselves and of our strengths and weaknesses. There is no harm in being self-critical so long as it is with the intention of improving ourselves. This opens up our minds to adding necessary expertise whenever the need arises.
Why do we exist? This is an important question to answer. We usually take our positions for granted and assume that we are essential part of the organization. My colleagues were taken aback when I asked them what if the management were to decide on outsourcing IT instead of retaining an in-house IT department. There were immediate protests but they had to be cooled down and asked to think and reply why their existence was important. We then went about addressing the question ‘who needs us’?
What are the needs of the organization or the expectations? This is where the needs of ‘the business’ come into play. The CIO has to understand and articulate to the team, the main direction of the organization’s business and its defined goals and priorities. The CIO also has to talk and interview various business heads to understand their issues and expectations. IT then has to align itself to business and chart out its path for playing the role of value addition. If the entire staff is aligned, they will ensure every step taken is in the right direction.
Do we fit the bill? Once this is understood, the group will have to assess their capability in delivering value and wherever there are gaps, they would need to endeavor to fill in with required resources.
Agree to walk along together: This is an important message here saying we agree to walk hand-in-hand or agree to perish together. This speaks of a shared mission on which everyone will contribute.
Having gone through these steps, the task of defining a mission statement for the group turned out to be easy summarization of the most significant ideals drawn up by us. The advantage was that the mission statement represented a value shared by all, and the group commitment went beyond the written statement.
We talk of pesky calls and the ways to exercise control over them. But there is another type of unwarranted call the CIOs often face: the unsolicited contact by overzealous target-driven salesmen. It is not uncommon to receive phone calls from salesmen either through the operator in the office or direct calls to our handsets, sometimes at very inconvenient moments, when we are in a meeting or busy otherwise.
I do empathize with their plight and try not to be harsh with them. Poor guys, they take it easy till they near the quarter-end or the year-end. Realizing that they still have a large ground to cover, they come under pressure and desperately try to pick an order or two from customers like us. People who call may either be vendors who have ongoing business with us or others, aspiring to build new relationships. While we can avoid or ignore a few calls, we are generally obliged to pick up a few.
Let me describe types of calls that I encounter:
Cold calls: These generally are from new vendors who pick up your contact number and call up without a reference. They insist on a short meeting pleading their case and promising path breaking solutions. A few smart ones manage to slip into the organization in the pretext of meeting someone and suddenly appear in front of your desk seeking a minute to introduce themselves. Their desperation surely kills our peace and quiet.
Follow-up calls from the current vendors: Vendors currently engaged with us use their privileged position to fix up review meetings or to make courtesy calls. The intention however is to persuade us to expand our footprint, use new features or to use further services.
Friends & acquaintances who seek a meeting: Some of these are our friends who would have dealt with us in the past or who would have met us in a seminar and exchanged cards with us. Then there are others who are referred to by one of our friends and they use that channel to seek an audience. It is difficult to say ‘No’ and we are obliged to meet.
Vendors engaged in ongoing talks: They are the vendors with whom talks are on and the assignment could either be at the feasibility, exploratory, or evaluation stage or even at the negotiation phase. However, being under pressure to meet their targets, they press on asking us to close the deal immediately so that they can add those numbers to their tally. Refusing to give up easily, they come back to lure us in the form of special discounts and freebees to close the deal. We have to endure and pass this test of patience.
How to manage these situations
New parties or non-significant salespersons can easily be given a go-by but we may not be able to cold-shoulder many others for a variety of reasons. It may be necessary to grant audience to a few in the interest of maintaining relationship or to understand if there is anything worthwhile for us to consider. The CIO can himself meet a few who he considers important but pass on the others to his managers.
Delegating this responsibility to some of your senior officers is a good way to spread the extra load of answering sales calls. This has three advantages. One it gives your manager a sense of importance as he acts as the company’s representative and gets vendors’ attention. Second he develops wonderful experience of dealing with vendors and also gets updated with the latest technology introductions. Thirdly, vendors are happy for having got a hearing.
The term IT Strategy is a commonly spoken of and the subject is often discussed in various seminars and talks. Being of so common a usage, it is assumed that all CIOs know about it and that it is practiced in most organizations.
In my interactions with CIOs in the last few years, I found that ‘strategic planning for IT’ is a practice which is a much less prevalent than what it should be. CIOs apparently have well-run programs in their companies; but on further enquiry, it transpires that many of them do not have their plans laid down on paper and nor do they have those shared with their managements.
If a plan is not clearly spelt out, it will remain unauthentic and not understood by others. In fact, people may even suspect whether such a plan exists. It is therefore important for any strategic plan to be laid down and articulated so that main stakeholders understand and are able to contribute to its fine tuning and its subsequent implementation.
IT plan Vs. IT strategy
Though IT strategy is a very familiar term it is still not understood clearly by many. Many tend to confuse it with the IT plan and hence claim to be on track. There is no disputing the fact that they have good IT plans and some may be running their programs efficiently, but they still do not carry the strategic element in it. In fact, many of the IT plans are really budgeting exercises for the year which list out the investments / expenses and the projects planned. CIOs therefore live from year to year and plan their activities based on user demand and technology additions / upgrades that they chalk out. They lack a discernible direction.
Let me define the subject in simple terms. IT strategy is an IT plan which has a definite direction and purpose. What differentiates an IT strategy from an IT plan is the purpose it serves. IT strategy is not a standalone plan but one which is in sync with the organization’s plans. Therefore the first step for the CIO is to understand the business the company is in, the market that it operates in, the competitors, business challenges, company’s inherent strengths, strategic direction, business priorities, and targets set. Once he gets that straight, he can make plans for IT to address these business issues with the same set of priorities. Obviously, IT strategy will require inputs from business and the final plan drawn up has to be vetted out by various wings of the organization.
Is there a methodology?
Yes, there are many. Management and IT consultants do help organizations and have developed their own sets of methods and practices. However, the CIO himself can adhere to simple principles of needs-discovery if he has the required capability. He has to hold discussions with the CEO, business heads, and other stakeholders besides visiting various company locations, the markets and even meeting business partners to understand the business imperatives and possible solutions. Once having compiled his findings, he could discuss it with technology-partners and seek solutions. He has to be receptive and be in a learning mode.
In case the CIO feels he does not have the requisite skills, he should muster courage to admit his inability to carry out the exercise himself. He should in such cases seek external assistance for help in making a comprehensive plan. It is better to have a good plan even though with external help rather than dishing out a poor plan claiming solo effort.
What holds him back?
Some CIOs fight shy of asking about strategy, feeling that they may get exposed for ignorance. They are sometimes at crossroads not knowing whether to seek consulting help (a lingering fear that they may get an adverse reaction of management) or do it in-house so that they could impress the management and claim saving money for the organization. Unfortunately, none of these tricks work in the long run, it is best to deal with these matters head-on and take hard decisions for the good of the organization.
Last weekend I was invited to be a speaker at a seminar that was being held to discuss cloud computing. The seminar was organized by an Institute of Technology in the Delhi NCR Region and was termed ‘National Seminar on Cloud Computing’. This was a full day event and I was told that this was a part of their practice to hold two such seminars every year. I gladly accepted the invitation as this was towards enhancement of knowledge for educational purposes.
I was given a list of topics including platforms & applications, enabling technologies, cloud in business, cloud in public sector, tools for management, cloud security, governance issues, etc. Having been with the large corporations during my career, I chose to speak on ‘Enterprise Cloud Computing’. I reached the venue a little ahead of my session so that I could get a feel of what was being discussed and tweak my talk accordingly. The audience mainly consisted of students, lecturers and a few invitees whereas the speakers were experts from various streams and mainly from vendor companies, representatives from specialist firms, and consultants.
In the preceding session, speakers presented their thoughts and ideas spanning a variety of areas including development tools, quality testing, performance management tools, security concerns and methods for their mitigation, etc. All speakers invited questions from the audience at the end of their speech but participants only nodded their heads in agreement but asked no questions.
Just before our session the organizers came up with a brilliant suggestion of changing our session into a panel discussion instead. Discussing this over lunch, the four speakers of this session felt that without adequate preparation and without a moderator, it would be difficult to last that long given the fact that the audience was rather passive in participation. So we reverted to our original plan of presentations with some time earmarked for questions and answers.
I took care to present the subject in an easy manner emphasizing on basics and leaving out a few details which I thought was were a little more advanced for the delegates. Other speakers too played the same card to the best of their abilities. There were but two questions and both from the teaching staff while students sat back dutifully till the end of the seminar.
Post session blues
When walking back from the hall, one of the professors enquired as to why this was termed ‘cloud computing’ and not ‘utility computing’ and another professor wanted to know if this was really working in the enterprises. Tired after the seminar, I preferred to wear a smile and give diplomatic answers. A student, sneaking in from behind and looking worried, spoke in a low voice and asked if ‘cloud’ was really safe. Before I could ask him further he said that he heard that the UID scheme in India is not taking off just because it was put on the cloud. I had to stop then to allay the fears of the young man explaining that what he had heard was incorrect and that UID was in a safe territory. I then turned around to another bunch of boys and asked them if the seminar was useful and one student admitted honestly that he understood nothing.
Key take-away from the seminar
There were quite a few things I learned from the seminar which makes me feel that the industry is in troubled times. Let me list them here:
1. ‘Cloud’ is a captivating theme which no institution can do without. A feeling that they will be termed outdated if they do not speak of cloud, is a compelling proposition. I wonder why institutions conduct such seminars; perhaps they do so because they have to as per their standard practice.
2. There is absence of planning and sessions are chosen without adequate thought.
3. The more they emphasize about the subject, the more they confuse the audience, especially the vulnerable young students.
4. It is perhaps time to downplay ‘cloud’ for a while and let the subject cool its heels for sometime — till this madness settles down a bit. Restarting later may inject a little more sense to the discussions and people will absorb the subject better.
5. People seem to have different understanding what a cloud is. I am reminded of the story ‘six blind men and the elephant’.
The cloud has been on the horizon for quite a while now and shows signs of moving overhead. The scene looks threatening and intoxicating and an overdose of it has caused a hangover from which I am recovering from.
Managing technology is an easy task for the CIOs – they know once they hit the right notes, technology behaves well. Managing users, however, is not as simple an affair. I am sure CIOs try all tricks in the book to win on this front but I am not sure how often they win. However, to ensure that systems work, one has to win over the users by using whatever means that are appropriate.
We are told that users are our customers and hence they are kings. More prophesies follow; we are made aware that users are the reason why we exist in our positions. We are advised of users being the very people who pass on feedback to management and hence it is in the fitness of things to keep them in good humor. It is needless to mention that keeping them happy ensures their use of your system else you may rue the consequences of failure.
A tough call, isn’t it? So we pull our hairs in disgust not knowing how to keep them happy. Some quip that it is easier to please their wives than dabbling with unrelenting users. But sweet advice does pour in and someone whispers in our ears saying ‘use diplomacy to tackle the users’. When enquired what it means comes the explanation: Diplomacy is an art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they tend to ask you for directions..!! Clear?’
So let us put down a few ways of using diplomacy to manage users:
- Get friendly
Why not wish him a good morning or make sure to greet him on his birthday. Pick up a conversation once in a while and show him that you value him as a friend. That will break the ice and may perhaps run down barriers that may exist.
- Show empathy
Users have their woes and nothing could be better than sympathizing with his situation and wear a sad expression to show that you understand his plight. Users often need a shoulder to cry on, so why not offer this service. You can always extend help and ask them promising to do your best. You may be able to help or perhaps not but no harm in trying. Unless you make it obvious, users fall prey to these tactics and I don’t think it is wrong to win him over by this method.
- Sound positive
Users don’t like to hear a ‘no’. You may say it is better to be straightforward instead of fooling around, but isn’t that foolhardy? How can you turn down a customer who has come looking for help? There are always workarounds. Why not sound positive and genuinely look for solutions and if not, you always have the choice of informing him of the difficulty in tackling his problem. I am sure he would understand and appreciate efforts you made.
- Shower praise
We often hold back our praise or acknowledgement of users with a feel that this may spoil them. On the contrary I would think it important to be magnanimous and say a word or two appreciating his views, approach, his work or his achievements. Why not give him some importance and make him feel bigger. Even when suggesting a solution or improvement in work processes, be suggestive and put words in his mouth. He will then own the process and make it work. May be you can take them out for an official lunch or dinner and hand them a memento to acknowledge their contribution. Speak kindly of them and even praise them in front of the management.
- Don’t react
All is not hunky dory. Users are sometimes very smart or fierce. They are at times in an attack mode and your charm doesn’t work. A normal tendency would be react and not take things lying down, but why create complications for ourselves? Better smile even if he is abusive but let him shed all the heat. After expending all energy he may cool down a bit and that could be the right time to make your pitch.
So friends, it is best to kill the user with kindness rather than picking up a battle in which no one wins. It is said a smile disarms the opponent, so why not try out this formula. Try entrapment with your diplomacy.
Building a dream team is a desire of all but it requires considerable doing. We sometimes have to build teams right from scratch and sometimes we either rebuild or restructure our teams to make them suitable for the state we aspire to get into. Building a new team is a lot easier than molding the current one for the new order.
I have been in several such situations in the past. Except for one occasion, where I had to put up a new team, in most cases, I had inherited a team that I had to work with. Assessing the worth of each member, re-skilling the team, re-allocating work, mentoring it, and in some rare cases, axing them were some of the challenges I had to face. The team to be created often depended on the culture of the organization and the plans that I made. I also required help from the HR department and the CEO.
Building a team takes time and we need to exercise patience. We may have to make mid-course corrections when things do not turn out the way we want and make amends when the individuals on whom we place our bets do not deliver. Great individuals form great teams but they need to be cohesive and realize that their victory lies in their collective success. Some element of mentoring and addressing matters of emotional stability becomes important. Let us look at the factors for team building:
- Shared mission, objective, standards, etc.
The first task, in my opinion, is to bring the entire team to a common platform — a position wherefrom each person looks at the same objectives and goals and starts working in the same direction. People have to be told that the progress can be only with collaborative effort.
- Re-skilling people
The skill-sets of some staff members may not be suitable in their current form for the new tasks that we plan. These team members necessarily have to be re-skilled and made capable. For instance, I had once to contend with a bunch of old staffers who had rudimentary skills in SQL programming and therefore I had to undertake a special in-house training course to make them aware of the relational structure, rules of normalizations, and consequences of wrong select statements. They shaped up better and hence could be utilized in software development projects.
- Assigning the right roles to the right people
Right people in the wrong roles, and vice-versa, is an old refrain. Restructuring of the team is often a good move by which we identify the skills people possess and assign them the roles that suit their temperament. On two occasions, I picked up staff working on development projects and shifted them to infrastructure monitoring and the results were amazing! These boys grew up in confidence and went on to become managers.
All available knowledge and skills are not always available within the organization and therefore induction of fresh talent becomes necessary. It has to be a careful choice and is important to pick up the right person who would work together with the team to achieve goals. In one case, I remember, the CEO asked me to meet a few of my peers in the organization before giving me the appointment letter. He told me that he wanted both, me and the others to feel comfortable.
- Training and development
This is often ignored or not given enough attention. With the ever-changing world around us, especially the world of technology and applications, it is better that people are suitably updated and upgraded to be able to bring new technologies into practice. Regular training sessions are as important as any other measure.
- Removing people
This is an unpleasant task but necessary at times. Though every effort should be made to reform a person, wrong people always create undesirable influences and are therefore detrimental to team working. It is important in such cases to either relocate them to some other function or ask them to seek opportunity elsewhere.
In summary, it takes considerable effort to build a good team and also takes us that much time to do so. But once the team assumes a proper shape, the work atmosphere turns exhilarating. People enjoy working together and the productivity jumps several folds. It is a utopian situation and is a fun when it works.
A few years into my role as a CIO, I realized that having the right people in the team is perhaps the single most important factor to be successful. In the initial period, I had struggled with my team which consisted of a few old timers, some good professionals, and youngsters. Some were effective and enthusiastic and others were placid and unambitious. Frankly, some did not fit into the group at all and caused considerable friction in the team. In such cases, it was natural for me to pick up the good ones in the team and entrust them with all the critical tasks. This was rather unfair as the sincere amongst them got overburdened while others were cornered and denied opportunity.
In the next organization I was fortunate to have a small but a good team and I added a few more based on our projected plans. As we slowly built up systems, people got involved and worked together to achieve success. Having tasted success, they wanted to do more and joined hands to scale greater heights. I could then sense the synergy in the group and general positivity which was wonderful.
It is said that there is no better way to learn than by experience. Experience showed me the magic of team dynamics and the importance of having the right people together. It is pertinent to quote Jim Collins from his book “Good to Great’. He says: “First get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figure out where to drive it.” He lays emphasis on the having the right people with you even before you begin your journey. Wrong people in the group may destroy teamwork, damage morale, and spread inefficiency and discontent.
Thumbs up to team work
Now let us look at the advantage that comes with having the right people in your team.
(a) Great teamwork: People feel comfortable working with each other and create a supportive environment. There is synergy in the group and the output often exceeds the targets set. You have self-managed and self-motivated people who need no supervision.
(b) High morale: The positive work environment ups the morale of the team and people feel excited and enthusiasm is palpable. People are self-driven and do not look for incentives.
(c) Quality of work and delivery: People put their hearts into the work and the result is high quality of work and timely execution. Committed individuals and the team practice self-supervision and ensure quality delivery.
(d) Better image of the function: Such enthusiasm is infectious and slowly rubs off on people they come in contact with. People from other functions love to engage with them and the image of the IT department is thus enhanced.
(e) Better connect with the management: When projects are rolled out successfully and the user departments express satisfaction, the message gets carried on to the management. I was in one such situation and the result was that all the further proposals by me got approved quickly and without much questioning (and that made other people envious!?)
(f) Delivery on time: We know most IT projects face hurdles and get delayed. However when right people work in a team, each person pulls his weight and delivers projects on time as the honor of the team is at stake.
(g) Personal bonding: People learn to respect one another and matters like seniority and hierarchy recede to the background. Informal get-togethers and social bonding are not uncommon.
How to build a team
Building the right team is a challenge and to be honest I have been able to build up such a team in only four of the seven organizations I have worked with. Getting the right people on the bus and offloading the wrong ones is easier said than done. Let me deal with this subject in my next article.
I have come across quite a few IT professionals and CIOs who desired change of jobs just because they had reached a level of stagnation in their current organization. When quizzed further they said they had already done whatever there was to do and therefore they have now to move on to do something bigger.
I was often amused and pretended sympathizing with them asking a few innocent questions to let them open up and tell me something more about it. What they said revealed quite a lot about their psyche and their level of understanding of the role they had taken up. These people were either CIOs of medium-sized organizations or IT managers from some larger organizations and they met me for a position in my company and in other cases came to seek my advice on their career paths.
What I found was that, in many cases, the perception of candidates was they had reached the limit of what could be done and there was nothing further that IT could do. Strange as it seemed, these candidates, however, seemed convinced of the situation. Let me narrate an instance of my encounter with a candidate who approached me for a job as manager. After the initial exchange of information about his current role and the my requirement, the conversation proceeded thus:
Me: Good to know that you successfully implemented ERP in your organization. Why then would you like to leave this position?
Candidate: Sir, once ERP is implemented there is not much else to do. Plus I have already given reports that users wanted.
Me: OK. Are users making use of the reports and have they derived benefit by reducing inventory, outstanding etc.?
Candidate: They take out reports regularly and I would expect them to put that to use.
Me: Did you explore the possibility of making process improvement in various areas and of reducing the turnaround time of different processes?
Candidate: That is a business call sir. I don’t want to interfere in their area.
Me: May be BI can help in analyzing business performance.
Candidate: I know but other managers don’t listen. Plus, it is difficult to train them.
Me: What about connecting other stakeholders like suppliers and dealers over Internet?
Candidate: That will take a long time.
You may have guessed it right, I rejected this candidate.
Those who came out of this syndrome
A young CIO once approached me requesting me to mentor him on his career path. Besides seeking a direction for his career, his immediate requirement was to change his present job for something better. I tried to understand his current role and factors that limited his progress. His answers were somewhat similar to what is mentioned above, but in this case he was searching for answers.
I talked to him about various possibilities including process re-engineering, BI, content/ document management, web-based processes merging into ERP, introducing mobility, etc. He then left with a few ideas in mind and worked in the same organization for the next two years bringing about changes and getting management’s attention.
He met me again and said he wants a change now, not because he was stagnating but because the organization had limited growth plans and therefore he wanted to use his new-found learning and confidence in another organization that is looking for improvement.
I thought that was an amazing turnaround displayed by this young man. He simply demonstrated that he could grab initiative and act when others slept. Problems are only in the mind and once you act things start things start falling in place. There is no point in running away from any situation as you may encounter the same problem in the next outing. Unless we use our faculties to improve the situation around us, we may fall short of our self-esteem.
Networks are the sensory nerves of the IT set up of an organization and extremely critical for the functioning of information systems. They connect the users to the information database and carry data and information to the users and let him operate on data and applications. Should the network snap, the entire organization’s work comes to a standstill. Yet the network is sometimes not given as much attention as it should be. There is a tendency to handle problems as and when they occur without getting into the root cause or taking steps to augment the network to take care of increased traffic or to remodel the network to ward off problems that occur frequently.
When reviewing IT performance of a few organizations I found networks either failing or delivering poor performance. User complaints were usually attended to with the IT in-charge either blaming the components, vendor or the budget sanctioned but doing nothing to work out a long term solution to the problem. In many a cases I found the network to be one which was designed several years ago but continuously burdened with additional users and applications without the network being adequately reviewed or upgraded. Some organizations had no network diagrams while some had no one specifically assigned to take care of the network.
Some good practices
I am discussing Local Area Networks (LAN) here as that forms the backbone of full network. People do connect from outside either from their other offices or through internet but that is through the WAN network. To make the LAN reliable it is necessary to follow some good practices which I explain below:
- Network planning and design: Laying of networks is not a case of ad-hoc cabling but requires careful planning and designing. The network should cater to the present and future requirement of business. Network planning therefore should take into account the business plan and growth projections, network capacity planning, definition of the number of LANs / VLANs and following structured cabling process.
- Network layout: The next step is a detailed design of the network identifying different types of physical connects for example places that need to be wired and those to be connected through wireless or radio. Documentation is essential in the form of a network diagram to show the placement of switches, routers etc. and types of connects for example cables Cat-6, Fiber, wireless etc.
- Laying cables: Once the network topology is drawn up, it becomes essential to make it work on the ground. It is important to choose routes through which cables would run and decide whether they would run either above or below ground or on walls and ceilings. In factory environment, it is essential to flag the route, use different color for network cables (to prevent accidental damage due to digging & construction), keep away from high tension cables and avoid mix up between network & electrical cables. For wireless networks placement of routers needs to be properly fixed up.
- Use network monitoring tools: The story doesn’t end with laying of the network; its good performance is a critical need. Physical or manual checking and surveillance are not an easy task and therefore it is necessary to install proper network management tools which can indicate traffic volumes on various segments of the network, measure performance, help diagnose faults and facilitate resolution. It is essential to move towards centralized monitoring and control.
- Concern for security: The local network need to be protected from unauthorized access both from within and outside the premises. Network sign-in should be through registered user-id and passwords. Extra care needs to be taken for Wi-Fi networks.
- Connect to the outside: All external connects should pass through VPNs, firewalls/ intrusion detection tools, etc. With increase threats, a 24/7 check by in-house staff becomes impossible and therefore companies prefer to outsource network security monitoring.
- Review of network once every few years: Requirements of organizations are never static and steady growth puts pressure on the network. Newer applications ride the network, more elements are added and the topology also undergoes a change over a period of time. Networks sometimes become unwieldy and therefore need a re-look and redesign where necessary. Components on the network also require replacement or upgrade.
It pays to keep the network healthy, live and kicking. It can be done only through adequate care and nurturing. A smooth flow of data and information brings smiles on the users’ faces.