Seven Things IT Should Be Doing (but Isn't)

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Pity the poor IT managers.

They're expected to know what their end-users want need, even if their end-users can't articulate it themselves. They're under constant pressure to develop new skills (like AJAX) while maintaining old ones (COBOL, anyone?), and to not only maintain line-of-business apps but jazz them up to meet the expectations of the Facebook generation.

They've got to deal with a data tsunami that increases more than 30 percent per year while simultaneously protecting the company jewels from devastating data spills. They're required to gird for disasters of unknown proportions and figure out how to keep the business going in the aftermath.

[ Think you've got it bad, check out "The 7 dirtiest jobs in IT." ]

And, oh yeah -- they need to take a few business finance courses. In their copious spare time, of course.

Tough job? You bet. But in this Web 2.0-centric data-engorged world, it's the cost of doing business. Do them well and both you and your company will succeed.

Here are seven (more) things to add to your must-do list. Ignore them at your peril.

[ See also our slideshow "Seven things IT should be doing (but isn't)" ]

No 1: Follow your users.
You don't have to hire a gumshoe to find out how people actually use technology inside your company's walls, but it couldn't hurt.

"IT folks should shadow their users to find out what they really do for a living," says Jonathan Ezor, assistant professor of law and technology at Touro Law Center in Central Islip, N.Y. IT personnel often complain users don't understand enough about technology, but Ezor says the opposite is also true -- IT recommendations don't reflect the real world of users.

[ Or you can cut down on the to-do list by putting end-users to work. See "Guerrilla IT: How to stop worrying and learn to love your superusers" ]

Case in point: pervasive wireless Net access. Great for many companies, but a potential disaster in Ezor's law classrooms. So starting next fall, some of the school's IT managers will begin auditing Ezor's classes, to get a feel for what student life is like.

Even better: Shoulder-surf your biggest customers. It's the best way to figure out what works and what needs fixing, says Richard Rabins, co-founder of database maker Alpha Software.

When Alpha builds custom apps for its biggest clients, it puts a development team inside the offices of the departments that will ultimately be using the software.

"Having developers feel the actual pain is very powerful," says Rabins. "If our IT folks can walk in the shoes of users and understand their business processes, that gives us a real competitive edge."

No 2: Embrace Web 2.0.
Like it or not, we live in a Facebook/Twitter/iPhone world. And if your line-of-business apps don't sport the latest Web service features, you could lose your best young employees to a company that does.

"Many IT organizations are not as ready for Web 2.0 as they need to be," says David McFarlane, COO for Nexaweb Technologies, which makes software and services for modernizing legacy applications. "They need to prepare for the millennium generation -- the audience that has only heard the legend of the DOS interface and expects to have a ubiquitous iPhone-like experience every time they touch a computer or related device."

[ For tips on giving your apps a Web 2.0 makeover, see "Rich Web development tools bring bling to the browser." ]

Your youngest, most tech-savvy employees expect to interact with the system from any browser, whether it's on their laptop or a cell phone, and access virtually any data from anywhere. If you don't provide that, somebody else will.

"Part of the reason to embrace Web 2.0 is to show your employees that your company is forward-thinking and willing to do things differently," says Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of Yoh, a technology talent and outsourcing firm. "It sounds bizarre, but if you don't do enough to energize your employees, they may lose interest in you as a company."

Your customers also have increasingly high expectations, adds Nexaweb's McFarlane.

"They expect to be part of the extended enterprise," McFarlane says. "If they order a part from you, they expect to be able to track where it is in the process, when it was dispatched, where it is now. If they file an insurance claim, they expect to participate, to take photos of the damage and upload them to the file. Companies can't departmentalize these things anymore. You need to deliver rich, compelling, engaging applications for your customers as well."

No. 3: Tame the data monster.
Bad, incomplete, or unusable data has been the bane of thousands of enterprises. Even data that's perfectly usable in one form may be useless in a broader context -- which leads to poor decision-making.

Tony Fisher, CEO of data-quality specialists DataFlux, recalls the time he was working with the CEO of a Fortune 10 company who was concerned about the aging population of the company's workforce.

[ How important is data cleansing and validation? Read "The perils of dirty data" and beware. ]

"His first question was, 'How many employees do we have and where are they?'" says Fisher. "But the best estimate he could get was between 90,000 and 115,000. He was never able to drill down to age of the population or its distribution."

The problem: It was huge global company with 120 locations, each with an HR system that treated data just a little bit differently. The data was sufficient for the needs of the local organizations, says Fisher, but they couldn't integrate it across different systems -- an increasingly common dilemma for many enterprises.

"Better data makes for a better business," Fisher says. "You need to make sure data isn't just accurate but is also fit-for-purpose, so it can drive business initiatives."

And this should be done sooner rather than later because the data deluge is only growing. Studies have found that the amount of data generated per year is growing by 35 to 40 percent, notes Sean Morris, sales director at Digitech Systems, an enterprise content management provider.

"IT folks need to take a closer look at how they are capturing, encrypting, and storing all the data their companies generate, including e-mail, invoices, and contracts," says Morris. "Companies with a solid ECM strategy will have a competitive advantage going forward, and IT can be positioned to be the hero."

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