12 quick IT productivity wins

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?

1. Stop losing, start finding

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.

“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 a

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