An IT manager gets into a conversation with a stranger at a party. They exchange pleasantries and then the stranger asks about the IT manager?s job. ?It can?t be as boring as everyone makes out,? he says. ?What exactly does the job involve?? In answer to this question, the last thing most computer professionals would mention is buying floppy disks, arranging the rental of network analysers or keeping troublesome mice ? pest or plastic ? at bay. But, although these issues are not nearly as sexy as the IT manager having ultimate responsibility for keeping the company running or designing a new database, the nuts and bolts services that are generally classed as menial are often vital to the successful operation of a business.
With this in mind, Business Computer World commissioned Spikes Cavell to survey IT managers? attitudes to these smaller-scale, service-oriented problems. These tend to revolve around the question of who does the work. Because, while the IT manager is responsible for the proper functioning of computer equipment, it may be the facilities management department which calls in Rentokil or hires cleaning contractors. Given that these services involve IT facilities, the question of who budgets for them has become an important issue.
This survey is about small-scale outsourcing (in the form of rental, leasing, the use of bureaux and cleaning) and insourcing (getting facilities management or other departments to deal with problems). There are no hard and fast rules in this game and every company is at a different stage of evolution. So it?s clear that, when it comes to minor services, you should play to the strengths of your colleagues in other departments, particularly if you can get them to foot the bill.
We need it yesterday! Capital outlay budgets are not generally raided for short-term requirements and replacement kit. And sometimes there isn?t enough money left in the annual budget to buy high-priced items, even if there is an urgent need.
It is therefore somewhat surprising that relatively few companies ever rent anything. According to the survey, six out of ten IT managers say they never consider renting equipment, no matter how expensive it is to buy. For specialist items like a network analyser, about 20 per cent would consider renting, although the larger the company, the less likely it is to rent.
Few organisations rent commodity items like PCs and notebooks. Even renting servers isn?t popular, although this is easily explained ? what IT manager would want a rented server which, after it has been filled with company files and settings, has to go back to the rental company?
So 68 per cent of IT managers have rented nothing in the past 12 months. But that means a third have. Why?
It isn?t surprising to hear that meeting a short-term equipment shortage is the main factor: 57 per cent of those using rental services cite this as a major motivation. Cost and time efficiency are also prime factors.
But 47 per cent ? mostly those who don?t rent at all ? also cite lack of cost efficiency as a reason for avoiding rentals. More than half of IT managers say they would buy equipment to meet short-term demands; and, while 39 per cent say they would lease, only 11 per cent would pay rental costs. This is certainly an area in which rental companies ought to concentrate their marketing activity. But with the IT industry increasingly offering its products as low-cost, low-margin commodities, outright purchase is likely to remain the most popular method of acquisition.
The trash man cometh Dealing with rubbish probably doesn?t appear on many IT manager?s job descriptions; as with most of the topics in this survey, it isn?t sexy. But what do companies do to clean the dust out of their machines and what do they do about those older items that need to be thrown out?
All computers produce static and attract dust, so cleaning them is vital. And, with keyboards and mice vulnerable to spilt coffee, biscuit crumbs and even hair, getting the computer cleaners in on a regular basis is a good idea.
The real surprise is that nearly a third of companies have no computer-cleaning budget. Roughly a quarter allocate money from the IT department, while user departments, facilities management and the general cleaning budget each pay for PC cleaning in about one in ten companies. But, by and large, the IT department expects users to ensure their own equipment is clean and functioning ? 44 per cent leave the task to the users.
Only 29 per cent of companies contract specialised computer cleaners, with 17 per cent relying on their general cleaning staff to attend to IT kit (a potentially risky policy), and 7 per cent not bothering about computer cleaning at all. When it comes to large items like enterprise servers and mainframes, a third of companies make no arrangement for cleaning these big ticket items, while a third use specialist cleaners.
After much debate, we also decided to ask about pest control ? after all, the original computer ?bugs? were real insects interfering with the proper working of the earliest computers.
Sadly, only 8 per cent of IT managers report having had any problems with pests over the past year, so there are no stories about rabid rats or menacing mice. Half of those afflicted with pest problems had experienced rats chewing on their power or networking cables, and it isn?t surprising to discover that most companies get a pest control firm in to deal with this problem.
There?s also the issue of what to do with redundant kit ? and for this we concentrated mainly on old PCs that aren?t worth upgrading. Happily, it seems that there is a relatively enlightened attitude to PC disposal at the firms we questioned. Fifty-four per cent are prepared to sell old machines to their employees ? a good plan if you want them to become more adept at PC usage in their own time. Donations to schools and charities also scored well.
Of course, any such charitable ? or semi-charitable ? acts need to be approached with caution. Old data must be cleaned from redundant machines. But, for a little effort ? like deleting all data files or formatting the hard drive ? the rewards in terms of company PR or staff morale can be enormous.
Naturally, some companies cannot take the risk of selling redundant equipment and others find it a pointless exercise. So a third of companies routinely hand over old kit to an IT disposal specialist, while 15 per cent return their kit to the original vendor. The only real surprise was the 39 per cent who occasionally throw PCs away with the rest of the rubbish.
Experts and trainees Conventional wisdom has it that IT is now as much a part of the enterprise as sales or marketing or even production. The acid test for this assumption is whether or not the functions common to IT and to other departments are managed under one roof (we?ve already established that cleaning tends not to be). And, for this test, training is perhaps the most interesting function.
It?s not really a question of who does the training ? two-thirds of companies are happy to employ a specialist IT training company, and half sometimes train staff using members of the IT department. The real issues are, who commissions the training and who holds the purse strings?
For half of companies, the answer remains the IT department, with only a quarter of firms leaving it to human resources and nearly one in five letting user departments take responsibility. Larger companies are much more likely to have dedicated training departments which will take IT into account. But, by and large, the situation remains one where the IT department is expected to shoulder the burden.
Finally, we wanted to look at the use of bureaux ? organisations which provide specific services like printing or disk duplication. Despite the fact that a bureau can offer a targeted, professional service using top-quality equipment and specially trained staff, 44 per cent of IT managers never go outside the building for spot requirements.
The task most often put out to a bureau is the printing of presentations, presumably due to the need for ultra high-quality colour printing, but even this is done by only one in five companies. CD-ROM duplication and pressing is outsourced by 18 per cent, while data entry is farmed out by only 10 per cent of companies.
Conclusion Small tasks tend to be boring, unglamorous and time-consuming. Is it any wonder that IT managers prefer to buy equipment rather than arrange complex rental or leasing deals and ensure the kit goes back on time? But although these jobs aren?t the most exciting part of the IT department?s function, without them things would start to get messy.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the survey, it is that everyone in business should be thinking about the little areas of IT which impinge on their own working lives. Should the IT department be responsible for ordering laser printer toner? No, that?s the job of the facilities management department (although 41 per cent of companies in our survey leave the IT manager in charge of this). Furthermore, IT training ought to be the remit of the human resources division and its budget should bear the burden.
Business Computer World has rarely conducted a survey where the range of answers has been so broad. This would suggest that the mundane services that affect the IT world are dealt with on a case-by-case, company-by-company basis ? a varied set of solutions to similar problems. But it also suggests that no one cares enough about these issues to have developed a coherent, industry-wide set of solutions. If that is the case in your company, it might be time to start thinking about how all the little things work and whether they can work better.
Who can you call? As we have discovered, there are many smaller services which, although not vital to the everyday operations of an IT department, do play a part in keeping things running smoothly. But, as our survey reveals, there is little co-ordination in the purchasing of these services, with many being acquired on a relatively ad hoc basis and buying responsibilities being shared across different departments.
Of course, the services available have changed in line with mainstream IT trends. Increasingly, it has become possible to get better performance for a lower price, and this has particularly affected companies formerly able to make a living out of buying and selling secondhand equipment and accessories.
The secondhand specialist Eight years ago, for example, companies advertised secondhand VT220 terminals for #195. Today, firms such as WDP, which for 25 years has specialised in buying unwanted equipment and selling it on, have watched much of their business dwindle in the face of the upsurge in PC sales.
WDP is run by Mike Covill and his wife and employs six people, buying and selling mainly IBM and DEC equipment. ?We buy and sell everything from mainframes and minis to PCs and add-ons, but the mainframe and mini business is disappearing fast,? says Covill. ?The business has changed dramatically ? a few years ago, our average sale was #50,000. Now it?s under #10,000.?
WDP buys equipment from companies undergoing change ? either expanding, ceasing to trade, or upgrading their IT systems. This equipment is then sold on, often for use as back-up systems or for first-time buyers looking for low-cost units. ?The typical customer has changed, too,? says Covill. ?A few years ago, we had big contracts overseas and the export market was 80 per cent of our business but, as PCs and networks have developed, manufacturers have gone into those countries and can sell new equipment cheaper than we can sell second hand. It?s no one?s fault, it?s just how things change. We?re like a corner shop competing with the supermarkets.?
Most of WDP?s business now comes from UK companies. Recently, it sold 10 secondhand RS/600s to a company that was planning eventually to upgrade to IBM hardware, but whose IT team wanted to develop some systems on the platform beforehand. By buying secondhand, the company saved about #20,000 on each system. ?Of course, the resale value is then nil, but they?ve had the benefit in the meantime,? says Covill.
The data converter Other parts of the small services market are more cheerful about the changes in the industry. Eight years ago, AL Downloading was making a living out of converting data from magnetic tape to floppy disks (8in, 5.25in, 3.5in or 3in). Today, the company is thriving, having doubled its sales over the past few years.
?Disk conversions have obviously gone down, but now we?re taking on a much wider range of conversions and, of course, the size of the data has increased considerably,? says John Farrant, managing director of AL Downloading. ?Today, a 10Gb conversion is common, whereas five years ago, that would have been unheard of.?
The company deals with a wide range of requirements, handling up to 30 jobs a day. ?It could be converting one Amstrad 3in disk to Mac or PC, or it could be converting 30 magnetic tapes to CD,? says Farrant. The business has two distinct types of customer, he adds: ?50 per cent of our customers will be IT managers, often on an ad hoc basis, who are clued up on IT and know what they want. The other half will be completely computer-illiterate and we have to guide them through their requirements.? A typical job for AL Downloading would be converting a bought-in customer list to run on a company?s system.
But, just because IT managers are generally computer-literate, it does not mean that they will always have the knowledge they need to make sensible decisions about buying ad hoc services. In fact, buying the very market intelligence which will ensure they have enough knowledge about the market before picking such services is yet another area where the unwary can trip up. Many market intelligence services sell highly priced reports about specific market areas, but picking the right report can be difficult.
The emergency services Some suppliers believe that, with or without investing in market intelligence, IT managers need to know more about specific areas before they invest their IT budget. This is a view held by Terence Pratley, sales and marketing director of uninterruptible power supply (UPS) vendor Gresham Power Electronics.
?People buying UPS systems on an ad hoc basis usually make a misguided choice,? says Pratley. He adds that managers often do not have a clear idea of what they need when it comes to protecting their systems.
He says that data corruption and other problems are the real danger from fluctuations in power supplies delivered by the National Grid, rather than total blackout. ?When people see a mouse locking up, for example, they think it must be a hardware or a software fault, but 99 per cent of the time, it would be a power problem,? he says. ?In real terms, data corruption is a bigger menace than blackouts, but people are making unqualified decisions about protection.?
Pratley says too many IT managers are picking the wrong kinds of UPS systems in the mistaken belief that this will ensure their mission-critical systems are protected from power surges and blackouts. ?There is a major awareness out there now about the need for UPS protection, but people only really understand the point of UPS when they?ve had some kind of mishap,? he comments.
According to Pratley, one common misapprehension is that installing a UPS will protect the system when, for only #100 more, the job could be done much more effectively. ?People expect to protect their systems against everything ? including a lightning strike ? with a UPS,? says Pratley. ?In fact, they should be looking at a UPS together with lightning suppression, which costs no more than #80 or #100 per bypass switch. And, don?t forget, it?s not just computer systems that need protecting ? phone systems are just as vulnerable.?
While lightning is not an everyday danger at most IT sites, other services provide different kinds of protection against equally worrying problems. The rapid rise in the use of portable computers, for example, has created a corresponding opportunity for thieves. This has, in turn, been reflected in the number of products and services designed to cut down on the theft of desktop and laptop systems and cover the company in case the worst happens.
Corporate View, for example, recently launched an insurance plan for users of portable computers. David Keating, the company?s managing director, says he launched the policy because he thinks insurers generally underrate the importance of a portable to its user. He says a portable is not just a machine, but a vital work tool. If it is stolen or damaged, what the user needs most is immediate help to get it replaced, not insurance delays and complications.
With this in mind, the Vision Portable Computer Insurance policy includes features designed to provide an overall service. It insures against theft and damage in the home or the office anywhere in the UK, and on worldwide travel trips of up to 60 days, and covers new and used machines.
Damaged machines needing repair are picked up by courier service, and replacement units for stolen or irreparably damaged equipment can be delivered promptly. The policy also includes a security marking kit to enable identification if a lost or stolen machine is recovered. This is an essential part of the policy, according to Keating, since the value to the user of the data on the machine often outweighs the replacement cost of the hardware or software.
Although many of the IT team?s more minor services are regarded as tedious, it is important to ensure that they are carried out efficiently and cost-effectively. It is for this reason that many of these areas remain the responsibility of the IT manager, because he is likely to have the relevant specialist knowledge.
The property adviser There are other areas where specialist knowledge is required, but in a wider context. For example, the selection of new properties and office locations is an important job and one over which the IT manager will often have considerable influence. For, even if it is not strictly the responsibility of the IT department, the company can?t move in if a prospective building won?t support the network infrastructure.
Hugh Rutherford is a partner at Edinburgh-based property consultant Ryden International. He has dealt with a number of computer companies and with the IT requirements of large corporate customers looking for new properties. ?We are finding that a lot of companies with offices in Edinburgh town houses are looking to move to more modern, open offices, with more flexibility and improved communications,? says Rutherford. ?Everyone wants flexibility ? the problem is balancing that with what is acceptable in funding terms, since it is not usually possible to cover in increased rent the costs of a shorter lease.?
The ability to run a modern IT system is clearly high on the list of priorities for most companies when they are shopping for new premises. Rutherford says that, although he generally deals with managing or finance directors, it is always useful to visit potential properties with clients, because it enables him to build up a clearer picture of a company?s needs, including those of the IT department.
Housekeeping budget But this level of service does not come cheap. Agencies like Ryden charge 10 per cent of the site lease or up to 15 per cent on property purchases. Rutherford sounds a warning to those who would rather save some of that money and put it in other areas. ?We are finding people are trying to go for the cheapest deal, but we think they are being penny wise and pound foolish,? he says. ?You have to pay for good service and that is what we provide.?
At the other end of the scale, businesses like AL Downloading would probably agree in principle with what Rutherford says. Whether the service is big or small, if it needs doing, it needs doing well. That is why users such as Sue Lance, head of IT at law firm Fladgate Fielder (see the Group 200 box on page 40), believes it is crucial for IT managers to ensure they have enough leeway in their annual running costs to cover such services, even though it can be difficult to forecast how much to budget for.
From pest control to renting extra equipment, from legal advice to ordering Post-It Notes, the miscellany of services needed annually by IT departments covers a vast range of scenarios. Many larger organisations will have the infrastructure and resources to cover such situations ? but do they also have the expertise to ensure they are getting the best services?
These are the kinds of problems that are easy to overlook. But, in today?s competitive business environment, it?s becoming increasingly important that IT managers focus on these smaller needs. The organised IT housekeeper plans ahead to ensure he has an adequate strategy and enough money in the kitty to cover the next problem that crops up ? whether it?s pigeon mites in the carpets or the need to outsource printing to regain inhouse time to work on a new application.
?It?s the small things that eat into the budget?
Sue Lance, head of IT at London-based law firm, Fladgate Fielder, says smaller services tend to have inadequate budgets, mainly because they are not as exciting as major developments. ?They are all the things that turn IT managers off,? she says.
Lance, who joined Fladgate Fielder in March, says she has ?probably? not allowed enough in her annual budget to cover such expenses. Nonetheless, she believes it is crucial to include an adequate level of resources for ad hoc service spending.
The main services she has had to buy up to now include specialist computer cleaning ? ?the regular cleaners aren?t allowed to touch the computers? ? and computer insurance for all the systems at the 160-strong legal practice. The practice has several DEC VAX systems and Unix machines, as well as substantial numbers of networked PCs running crucial applications, such as document management, practice management, case control and email, as well as a great deal of reference material on CD-ROM.
But Lance says it?s the small things that eat into the budget. ?For example, you?ll think about doing asset management and realise you need identifiers for the system ? ie bits of sticky paper,? she explains.
Sue Lance, head of IT, Fladgate Fielder
User view ? shower company shifts service responsibilities away from IT
At shower manufacturer Caradon Mira, Bridget King, manager of systems implementation and support, has a robust attitude towards some of the minor services that are the IT department?s responsibility.
?There have been some changes recently,? she explains. ?We used to be responsible for printer strategy, but we?ve managed to shift that to the individual departments where the printers are located.?
King?s view is that, while the 10-strong IT department is happy to handle all technical services, other work should be kept to a minimum. In fact, she?s negotiating at the moment over responsibility for the phones, which have traditionally been under the control of the IT department. ?We?d rather not deal with that,? says King.
As for other services that might be needed from time to time, such as training or insurance, King thinks these too are best handled by others. ?We would look to the rest of the company to provide these things,? she says.
One of the few non-technical services provided by the IT department is the use of a fireproof safe for storing back-up data. ?It does mean people bring their back-ups in ? but they do the actual back-ups themselves,? she explains.
Bridget King, manager,
and support, Caradon Mira
User view ? IT department supports itself at gas supply company
In contrast with Bridget King?s view (see boxout on previous page) that most non-technical services shouldn?t be the IT team?s responsibility, Gary Pettifer, technical services manager at Air Products, sees his department as very much a separate entity, responsible for buying in a whole range of services.
The company, a Detroit-based supplier of gases and gas mixtures for a range of industrial processes, has an extensive European operation, run from its European head office in Surrey. Pettifer?s team supports IT systems across more than 60 European sites.
Supporting a large client-server infrastructure has involved Pettifer in a number of service deals, mainly concerning the running of the systems rather than peripheral services.
Recent contracts include disaster recovery and the outsourcing of some of the European operation?s HP 3,000 servers. ?We have asked HP to look after that operation and we will be looking for other opportunities to outsource specific services,? says Pettifer. ?We will certainly be looking at the desktop, for instance, which takes up a lot of time for people here in-house.?
Similarly, as part of the move to outsource specific services, Pettifer has signed a contract for an external firm to take over printing and despatch. ?All this comes out of IT budgets,? he says. ?It is very much our responsibility. The IT department is run almost like a separate entity.?
Although he has hived off specific services, Pettifer hasn?t had to get involved with too many of the low-end services. ?We don?t have specialist computer cleaning ? and we don?t have any problems with pest control,? he says.
Gary Pettifer, technical services manager, Air Products
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