Tight times? Organize your networking group to stay above the stress

Savvy networking professionals will use tight times as a chance to reorganize their network groups before some pointy-haired boss gets the first strike.

When the economy goes bad, network managers start looking at ways to better organize their network teams.

Just ask Paul Holstein, COO of CableOrganizer.com, an online seller of networking gear. He said storage bins are flying off the shelves.

"We're selling a whole lot more of those. People in a recession want to get organized," Holstein said. "A product like this just really reduces their stress."

Bins are a good start, but network managers should also look at a belt-tightening phase as a good time to organize their teams. They should find a way to strike the right balance between daily maintenance work and introducing long-term changes.

SearchNetworking.com polled several experts for their advice on how to organize the networking group in a down economy.

Sort out your services

The number of services that a business demands from its network team can balloon quickly, including everything from troubleshooting the Web-enabled CRM to setting up new users on the network. As executives start pinching pennies, network managers need to have a ready answer when asked, "What exactly do your people do?"

"You need to get a good handle on your service catalog -- what kind of service level you are offering to your users," said Mark Tauschek, a senior research analyst for Info-Tech Research Group.

If the network manager over-provisions services, he's wasting resources and his staff's precious time. Under-provision services and the complaints start rolling in. It's best to make clear to users, and the networking team, what exactly networking does and does not cover.

Keep up with the Joneses

Every IT organization is different and serves different needs, but comparing resource allocation and service offerings with other companies can be helpful in making sure that no one area is running too far off track.

Tauschek said that after defining a service catalog, such an endeavor is the perfect next step.

First, a network manager should estimate roughly how long, on average, his team takes to complete each task. Many help desk systems can automatically compile this data if the categories are properly set up.

Then, Tauschek suggests, network managers should compare notes with peers in a similarly sized company in a similar industry. Also, firms like Info-Tech offer surveys that break down such data, letting customers choose industry, sub-industry and size to see how their companies rate against the norm.

Tauschek said network managers should take a look at how many resources peers allocate to WAN management, LAN management, network administration, and other heavy-hitting service categories. They should ask themselves whether their network teams are missing a key initiative that could save time and money over the long haul.

It also pays to look at how employees are spending their time: Even with the best of intentions, employees who serve in multiple roles can get sucked into non-critical tasks.

"Particularly [in] smaller organizations that grow organically, what ends up happening is you've got a guy or a couple of guys that do a whole bunch of things," Tauschek said. Taking an inventory of tasks can ensure that these multi-taskers balance their work in a way that best serves the company's needs.

Such analysis might also point out where cuts can be made, if necessary, with as little operational disruption as possible.

"One of the things that can happen is you get pear-shaped, and you have a lot of middle management but not a lot of skilled people," Tauschek said. "I think that's common in a lot of organizations." That being said, few IT groups have much fat to trim, he said. Even if this is not the right time to ask for permission to increase headcount, keeping the employees you do have and better allocating their time could boost your productivity.

Rethink the org chart

Lower-level employees are not the only ones who could use some reshuffling.

Nick Lippis, CEO of Lippis Enterprises, said that this may be an excellent time to align the networking team with future technology trends.

"There are two particular market segments that are really driving a fundamental rethinking about how I organize my IT people to actually deliver," Lippis said. Those two pieces, both of which feature networking crossover, are the data center and unified communications.

For example, unified communications, social networking, telephony, email, and other collaboration technologies are quickly converging. All of it may appear seamless to the user, but the back-end systems live in completely different technological spheres, Lippis said.

"From an IT point of view, you usually have people who are in charge of communications, and then you have the folks coming from a telecom background, plus a social piece," he said. "How do I reorganize my organization to take advantage of this?"

Network managers might not be in a position to hire someone to bridge these different groups, Lippis said. But a natural leader might already be working within the organization. A network administrator who simply gets along with others might be the right choice. Or maybe someone with good technical prowess across multiple domains might be the answer.

Regardless of who the network manager chooses to serve in this emerging role, someone must have centralized authority over technologies and services that cut across the IT silos, Lippis said. The network manager needs to make sure someone is in place who can streamline management of technologies across silos and reduce finger-pointing to a minimum when things do go wrong.

"The role is really [one] of facilitator," Lippis said. He compared the role to one that emerged in information security a few years back. Now, when times are tight, a central, the-buck-stops-here figure can help make sure that every dollar is accounted for with a strategic eye to the future.

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