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

Stop us if this story sounds familiar. You’ve been asked to a) keep your infrastructure humming and b) come up with innovative ways to use technology to boost the bottom line. Meanwhile, your resources are stretched tighter than a $2 string on a banjo and you spend so much time putting out fires you should be wearing a helmet and carrying a hose.

We feel your pain. So we talked to tech pros and came up with 12 ways to boost your productivity without investing tens of thousands of dollars or six months of your life. (See also "Natural-born IT productivity killers.")

Some tips you can implement right now. Others may take a few days or weeks to fully deploy but will pay off handsomely in the long run.

So what are you waiting for?

You’d think IT pros would be naturals at managing files. But you’d be wrong, says Laura Leist, an organizational consultant and owner of Eliminate Chaos. Leist says she recently spent five days with the IT staff at a major hospital in Seattle, teaching them how to name files and put them in folders other than My Documents.

1. Stop losing, start finding

“I’ve spent many, many hours in conference rooms talking to companies that have no structure to their servers, no naming conventions for documents, and duplicate copies of documents because people in their organization don’t know what someone else has created so they do it all over again,” Leist explains.

At the workgroup level, the basic prescription is absurdly simple: Set up a common area on the network servers for storing documents. Get department heads to decide what should be stored there, who should be able to access what, and what the file-naming conventions should be.

Then install a search app such as Google Desktop or Microsoft’s Windows Desktop Search to find files across local and mapped network drives — or, as an enterprise-class quick fix, deploy a search solution such as Search Appliance or ISYS:Web8 that can crawl the entire network.

Think about it: How much of your work life do you squander trying to find stuff? As Leist says, most people know they need to get their act together, but never seem to have the time. As a result, they waste a whole lot more of it.

2. Meet less, work more

For many organizations, “meeting” is a four-letter word. Although face-to-face sit-downs can’t be avoided entirely, you can minimize the productivity drain, says Keith Carlson, CEO of Innotas, an on-demand app vendor.

“Meetings will always expand to fill the time alloted,” he says. His fix? A lot less time. Have a clear idea of what you want meetings to accomplish, limit them to 30 minutes, and hold at least some of them on your feet. “It’s amazing how productive you can be when you hold meetings standing up.”

Patrick Sullivan, enterprise architect for the Chubb Group, says his group is looking at wikis to minimize meetings and cut down on e-mail. Chubb’s internal dev team, for example, is experimenting with Wiki Media — the same tool used to create the Wikipedia — to share ideas and collaborate on documentation as it codes. “The wiki technology lets our developers learn fun new skills while parlaying that into system documentation and new kinds of discussion groups,” he says.

And when his group does hold meetings, Sullivan encourages employees to use a teleconferencing connection — even when they’re sitting in an office down the hall.

“We might have a status meeting with 15 items on the agenda and you’re 14th on the list,” Sullivan says. “There’s no need to sit through the whole meeting until we get to your item. You can use that time to do research or manage multiple tasks.”

If you don’t have a dedicated teleconferencing setup, a hosted Web conferencing solution such as Citrix GoToMeeting, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, or WebEx can save you time and expense. For example, for around $40 a month you can hold meetings with as many as 10 remote participants using WebEx.

3. Use IM (with caution)

Instant messaging can avoid the delays associated with e-mail and the downtime of face-to-face or phone interactions — one reason why enterprise IM apps such as IBM Lotus Instant Messaging, Jabber, and Microsoft’s Live Communications Server are really catching on.

A mid-2006 survey of 112 enterprises by the Radicati Group found that 71 percent use a sanctioned instant messaging application, and that employees spend an average of 16 percent of their day using IM. Radicati predicts enterprise IM traffic will grow from 2.1 billion messages per day in 2006 to 10.7 billion messages by 2010.

“IM is seeing strong uptake in the business world largely due to its immediacy of use,” says Matt Anderson, principal analyst for Radicati. “In addition, IM’s presence functionality makes it easy for co-workers to ‘find’ each other online, thus providing a much needed tool for group collaboration.”

If you implement IM in the workplace, you need to take several precautions, says Chaco’s Brenner. For one thing, IM falls under the same compliance rules as e-mail and other corporate communications, so care must be taken to preserve records and avoid revealing privileged information to outsiders. “If you’re using IM without an IM SOX consultant, you’re headed for trouble,” Brenner says.

Enterprise-class IM systems come with that audit trail. Another reason to use them: The phishing and social engineering attacks that plague public IM systems are highly unlikely to touch an enterprise user in a closed loop system.

Used unwisely or too often, though, IM can sap your productivity. You’ll need to establish guidelines about how and when IM can be used, and encourage employees to make themselves unavailable when they need to bear down and meet deadlines.

4. Free up your help desk
Help desk techs spend a lot of time fixing the same obvious problems. The more no-brainer stuff you take off their plates, the more time they can spend on real dilemmas.

For example, every two weeks, Richard Casselberry, director of IT operations for networking vendor Enterasys, meets with his internal help desk department to review the questions they get and brainstorm solutions. One quick fix: Increase the number of incorrect passwords users are allowed before they’re prevented from logging onto the network. By boosting failed attempts from 3 to 12, Enterasys was able to slash help desk calls for password resets without adversely affecting security.

Remote access products such as GoToMyPC and NetworkStreaming can help speed call resolution by giving techs secure remote access to customer systems. Kodak Dental, whose practice management and imaging software is used by more than 37,000 dental practices worldwide, uses an appliance from NetworkStreaming that enables clients to connect with techs instantly through the firewall. Users download a small remote applet — and log onto a secure Web page when they need help.

Dennis Nelson, support systems analyst for the company, says the NetworkStreaming appliance shrinks call times by 24 percent, saving the company $5,000 a day in support costs. That has allowed Kodak Dental to grow its business without having to ramp up help desk personnel.

5. Get the news you need
Want to cut down on e-mail and deploy a quick knowledge management solution at the same time? Then deploy an enterprise RSS app to deliver timely or essential information to employees. Apps such as Attensa Feed Server, KnowHow3, and NewsGator Enterprise Server (and its new hosted RSS service) allow you to set up and monitor news feeds.

RSS is more efficient than e-mail because recipients don’t have to wade through a mass of junk e-mail to find it and corporate spam filters won’t flag incoming RSS messages by mistake, says Rick Brenner, principal of Chaco Canyon Consulting. When you provision RSS feeds internally, they can help you get new hires up to speed fast — or quickly distribute security bulletins, facilities announcements, or interdepartmental memos.

Instead of asking employees to hunt for information on the Web, managers can use RSS to ensure the flow of knowledge throughout the organization. And because the feed can follow the employees as they move through the organization, there’s less maintenance from an IT perspective, Brenner says.

“RSS also eliminates the need to keep copies of the same person’s address on several subscription lists,” Brenner adds. “So if someone changes their address for any reason, they won’t have to notify anyone. And if someone moves to a new role that requires a different set of subscriptions, they can take care of the changes without bothering the RSS publishers.”

The caveats? Managing bandwidth from both a server and a user perspective. As with e-mail and instant messaging (see above), overusing RSS can result in a productivity drain, not a gain.

6. Get a handle on your projects
Gerry Skipworth was busy all the time, but his firm’s consulting business was losing money. So in 2002 he signed up with Innotas’ Project Portfolio Management simply to find out where all his time was going. Then the vice president of IT services for systems integrator Compugen encouraged his staff to enter their data into Innotas Web app as well. The results weren’t pretty.

“We were spending too much time meeting with vendors and not enough time racking up billable hours,” Skipworth says. “We didn’t need a consultant, a project manager, and a software architect attending every client presentation. But before we could set limits, we needed to see where our time was going.”

PPM is all about visibility. “IT managers need to know they have the right people working on the right projects, and that their time is optimized,” says Innotas’ Carlson. “We give them visibility into all this information in one place.”

Skipworth says it took about two weeks to get running on the Web-based PPM, mostly gathering and entering data, and cost from $15 to $40 a month per seat. Now some 250 Compugen employees use the app to prioritize how much time they devote to projects, so the company can focus on those that have the greatest impact on the bottom line.

7. Stop micromanaging
If you can’t get your work done each day, there’s a good chance it’s because you’re busy doing someone else’s job, says Chaco Consulting’s Rick Brenner. Inexperienced managers in particular are often guilty of taking their old jobs along with them to their new assignments, which leads to micromanaging and a host of other problems.

There’s no quick fix for micromanaging, but there is a fast way to figure out if this is your problem. Start by making a list of things you’re doing that you shouldn’t be doing, then list the parts of your job you don’t get to each day. As you winnow the first list the second one will also shrink, when you realize all of the other things you should be doing but aren’t.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What is my job?’” Brenner says. “With most of my clients, part of their job is to develop the people who are working for them. When I ask them ‘What did you do today to develop someone else’s skills?’ the answer is usually ‘Nothing.’ They’re not doing their jobs.”

Stepping in and doing the job for your reports only makes the problem worse, Brenner adds. The key is teaching your staff the skills they need to stand on their own. That may require outside training, allocating more resources, or finding ways to reward productive workers without necessarily promoting them into management.

“A lot of IT managers tend not to delegate, either because they’re control freaks or they think no one else can do it as well as they can,” says Brendan Courtney, vice president for Spherion, a $2 billion staffing and recruiting firm. “They also tend to not hire people they perceive might be better than them. What they don’t realize is that if they hire people who are better and delegate authority, it will further their own careers.”

8. Double your displays
Sometimes, adding inexpensive hardware can give your bottom line a boost. In May, insurance firm The Durkin Agency moved 20 of its claims adjustors, data entry clerks, and IT employees to a dual-monitor setup using 19-inch flat panel displays. The result? A 10 percent increase in the number of insurance claims the firm processed each day, along with increased employee satisfaction, says vice president Eileen Durkin.

Multiple monitor configurations are gaining in popularity, says Derek Timm, national technical services manager for WorkRite, which sells the articulating arms Durkin uses in its dual-display workstations.

“For a minimal cost, the productivity gains you can get from a dual monitor are quite phenomenal,” Timm says. “You don’t have to minimize windows as much, or page back and forth between applications.” Putting the displays on adjustable mounts creates more desk space and allows users to adjust their workstations for comfort.

9. Give your WAN a boost
If your company has branch offices, odds are you’ve got wide-area network problems. As traffic slows down due to latency and other issues, so does your ability to collaborate with far-flung colleagues. The solution may be a WAN-acceleration appliance.

Appliances such as Blue Coat Systems’ SG800, Riverbed Technologies’ Steelhead 3010, and Silver Peak’s NX-3500 can cache frequently transferred files and optimize TCP, MAPI, HTTP, and other Net protocols to make offices halfway around the world feel as if they’re right next door. Prices start around $7,500 per appliance but head north in a hurry.

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