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Guest Blog: Social Collaboration in Action

Like many mid-size companies, TaxAudit.com constantly searches for new ways to leverage limited resources to produce competitive advantage. In analyzing our IT operations, we found a complex and highly fragmented information infrastructure, with details about our environment and changes to it spread across many systems including documents on our network drives, our help desk management system, unstructured wikis, and email – just to name a few. In addition, we had a manual and error prone change management process that relied heavily on email and document attachments for approval “workflow” and lacked effective controls to help ensure that changes were taking place in compliance with policies. Against this backdrop, we had difficulty quickly understanding the current state of our environment or the changes to it. To do so often meant going back through email or to the source system itself to determine the current configuration, which proved cumbersome and often resulted in missed connections to other impacted items when we were contemplating a change. We needed a better way to view and understand our technical environment.

After reviewing a number of CMDB tools, we happened across ITinvolve. One of our concerns with the big CMDB tools – in addition to cost and heavy resource requirements – was a pervasive opinion that ongoing management of these tools required a disproportionate commitment of employee time and that the employees who were responsible for managing the CMDB information seemed to be perpetually behind as they scrambled to keep the CMDB in sync with reality.  What we found intriguing about ITinvolve was their application of social networking concepts to help the system become somewhat self-managing, with knowledgeable subject matter experts following the items they know about and commenting when they saw something that didn’t look right. By decentralizing the knowledge management function, ITinvolve gave us the hope of better information with less management effort.

We worked with ITinvolve to determine how their solution would fit within our organization and how it might help us. We chose to implement their software in the fall of 2012 and have been pleased with what it has done for us so far. Realizing the level of effort involved in bringing so much disparate information together into one place, we tried to temper our expectations regarding rate of adoption and new data aggregation. Internally, I thought it would take six months to get key aspects of the software ingrained into our day-to-day operations, with a full year before it was fully institutionalized. So far, those expectations have been accurate.

To give us a foundation, we first imported key information that we could gather electronically into ITinvolve, such as server and workstation names, users, phone numbers, applications, etc. We were able to pull this information from sources such as our inventory management system, Active Directory, spreadsheets, and other similar items. With these lists in the system, we started establishing the relationships between various items. As expected, this was the most time consuming aspect of the process and is something that will be ongoing for a number of months as we balance the daily IT workload against the effort to update this information. At ITinvolve’s prompting, we avoided a “boil the ocean” approach, where we tried to model everything all at once. Instead, we started small, with important aspects of our production environment, modeling the relationships between key servers, networks, and applications so we could understand how that looked. Over time, the team has become fairly adept at modeling new information and making or suggesting changes to what we have modeled so far. The goal is to have ITinvolve  be the “one version of the truth” with respect to modeling relevant details of our current environment and we are well on our way to achieving that objective.

We also leveraged ITinvolve’s Change Management function from the start. This gave us two things. First, it provided a robust audit trail of all changes that we implemented along with a centralized, automated approval process that minimized miscommunication about who should approve a given Change and whether a Change had been properly approved or not. Second, the Change process helped us build out the ITinvolve model, as we asked users to establish relationships between objects that were involved with their Changes. Using this technique, we have been able to incrementally add to the ITinvolve model of our environment as we make changes, while also obtaining user involvement and, ultimately, buy-in to the new way of working.

Any significant change to an organization takes time to implement as people absorb the new information and processes, then adapt their work habits to fit the new model. The ITinvolve implementation has certainly presented challenges to our company as the employees and management worked to figure out the best ways to leverage the solution. However, with the constant support of ITinvolve’s excellent team and the perpetual encouragement of our team, we have made it through the various stages of the Valley of Despair adoption curve and are on our way to a more structured, more accurate, and more productive IT operation – with ITinvolve at the center.

Matt Estes
Director of Strategic Initiatives, TaxAudit
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