12 quick IT productivity wins

Already lapsed on your New Year's resolutions? It's not too late. These quick IT fixes will make you and your department look good

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The key is choosing the right appliance for your enterprise, as different accelerators have different strengths. The Steelhead, for example, can optimize Microsoft SQL Server and Exchange traffic; Blue Coat’s solution is the only one of the three that can handle encrypted traffic using SSL; and Silver Peak’s appliance can beef up UDP (User Datagram Protocol) traffic, which can provide a boost for real-time voice and video transmissions. For more information on WAN acceleration, see Keith Schultz’s “Wide-Area Slowdown.”

At most companies, playing computer games is grounds for reprimand if not dismissal. At the Regence Group, it’s encouraged. Of course, employees of the Oregon-based Blue Cross/Blue Shield provider aren’t playing ordinary games; they’re engaged in a real-time incentive program that rewards them for meeting specified goals.

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10. Play the game — literally

For example, customer service agents who resolve a certain number of problems on the first call may receive 10 tokens, which they can use to play an online slot machine or a bass fishing game, says Regence HR director Ryan Kenney. After they rack up points inside the game, employees can exchange them for a debit card worth actual cash.

While it sounds like fun and games, there’s real science behind it, says Brooks Mitchell, a professor of management at the University of Wyoming and CEO of Snowfly, which designed the incentive system used by Regence. “It’s called behavior shaping,” he says. “If you can reinforce little behaviors daily or even hourly, the big behaviors will occur by themselves later on.”

When employees are recognized and rewarded, Mitchell says, attendance, job satisfaction, and employee retention rise. A meta-study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of Central Florida found that workplace incentive programs increased productivity by 22 percent on average, and monetary rewards were twice as effective as the nonmonetary ones.

Mitchell admits Snowfly is best suited for entry-level tasks where performance can be easily measured, such as call centers and help desks. But Regence has broader ambitions. At press time, 1,400 of the company’s 6,000 employees were using Snowfly in a pilot program, but Kenney says they hope eventually to roll it out throughout most of the company, including the IT department — to, say, reward programmers for meeting deadlines or submitting code with a minimal number of bugs.

The key to the program’s success is sitting down with each employee and coming up with ways to measure their performance objectively, Kenney says.

“What excites the HR geek in me is how Snowfly helps employees understand what matters most,” Kenney says. “We want to build employee engagement, align them with the strategic objectives of the company, and hold onto our people longer. Employee retention alone will ultimately save us millions of dollars.”

11. Look for easy ways to integrate
Most enterprise application integration projects are huge hairy beasts, capable of gobbling up every IT resource and budget dollar in sight. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Simplified integration tools such as the open source Jitterbit software or Cast Iron Systems’ iA3000 appliance allow you to integrate different apps without the pain of programming, freeing up your IT staff for more important endeavors.

“Integration is one of those necessary evils that drags you down,” says Simon Peel, senior vice president of integration strategies for Cast Iron Systems. “If you go up to someone and say ‘I did 20 integrations today’ they’re likely to say they don’t care. Our box lets you get the job done much faster and move on to things that are really critical for your organization.”

IT solutions provider Optimus Solutions used Cast Iron appliances to integrate data between SalesForce.com and Microsoft Navision (now called Microsoft Dynamics NAV). After the company’s development team had identified the data it wanted to integrate and how it should look, getting Cast Iron implemented took about a week, says Steve McDonald, vice president for IT at Optimus. The iA3000 appliances start at $2500 per month.

“It’s had an enormous impact on our productivity,” McDonald says. “We got exactly what we needed with appropriate scalability without having to hire an EAI specialist. We’re just beginning to discover all the synergies between our sales and AR teams, but the improvement in the general level of consistency and communication on both sides has been noteworthy.”

12. Think strategy, not tactics
Ultimately, by measuring how you and your staff spend, minimize waste, and delegate authority, you want to be in a position where you can see the big picture of how IT relates to your organization’s bottom line. But that’s not where most IT organizations are today, says Chuck Kirchner, practice director for IT strategy at the Forsythe Solutions Group.

“Most IT organizations are reactionary to some degree, and some are very reactionary,” Kirchner says. A good measure as to whether an IT department is reactionary or visionary is how often its top IT execs must leave meetings to deal with production problems or other emergencies. “The more often an organization’s leaders have to put out fires, the less mature it is.”

Ultimately, Kirchner says, there is no magic-bullet solution. Long-term productivity gains can only be realized through an IT service management initiative that establishes clear expectations for the services IT is expected to provide, trains techs in how to provide them, and educates users within the organization on the best ways to engage technology. You can start today by laying out a road map of where the organization is and where you’d like it to be in six months, a year, two years, and so on.

Spend all your time putting out fires — focusing on tactical tasks instead of strategic ones — and you risk burning down the entire enterprise.

Correction: In this feature, the version of ISYS:web should have been "8," and Chuck Kirchner's title was incorrect. InfoWorld regrets the errors, which have been corrected.

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