Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Small Business Challenges: Drop Everything

Most often I will write about purely technical things: what neat tool I found, some challenge I had, a learning experience, etc. I feel, however, that at times it's important to also highlight and touch on the portion of Systems Administration that has nothing to do with the machine and everything to do with the Administration portion-- things like processes and interpersonal communication and office culture. Today is one of those times.

Working for a large company (or even a mid-size company), you encounter a fair number of standards and processes because they have to be there. A company that has a central IT staff and many branch offices has to have some kind of ticketing system so that people get assistance. A company that has to achieve some sort of compliance measure (like PCI or the MA privacy laws) finds themselves building processes and standards as a result of the changes that they have to make in operations. These are the kinds of companies I've worked for in the past, and it has given me a great appreciation for the way this works to best use your resources and make sure that the important, business-critical items are being hit consistently. I enjoy the order of this kind of environment.

Small business culture, which I've had ample opportunity to experience as a consultant, works very differently.  In a small business there are few if any formal processes for IT, and those that exist are not followed consistently. There are no change control forms, no ticketing system. Small businesses favor a "drop everything" atmosphere. It's hard not to really, when your IT department or support person is merely a few cubicles or desks away. I've had it described to me as an environment where "you can knock on any door at any time and people will drop everything to help you." I love this mentality, and in fact expect it...when there's an emergency or unforeseen situation. If my server crashes, or the network goes down, all hands on deck for sure. The problem is that perceptions of emergency vary. I do not expect this to be the case when someone doesn't like the way their Blackberry is displaying their messages. I also don't expect this to be the case in the classic story of "lack of planning on your part does not constitue an emergency on mine".

We've all been there, all experienced this in some aspect of our lives. This kind of mentality and behavior isn't solely a facet of working in IT. We've all been in the middle of something and had someone approach us with the expectation that we would immediately attend to their issue. When that happens, how easy is it for you to go back to what you were doing? Do you find it difficult to pick up where you left off? Do you think it affects the outcome of your work to be interrupted in this manner? Perhaps it takes you longer to complete a task because you have to switch trains of thought so often. It is now widely understood that "multitasking" actually makes it more difficult to complete a single a task, and usually means it takes longer. It is nowhere near as productive as focusing on a single task until completion, or at least until a natural stopping point.

Here is a pretty typical picture: I'm sitting at my desk working through a problem. I have multiple terminal sessions to servers open, a browser with tabs that I've used for researching the problem, and I'm reading through articles and checking logs. Someone approaches with an issue. It's not an emergency issue, it's not stopping them from working or affecting productivity, but I get up and go with them to their desk anyway to check out their problem. I come back to my desk and stare at the windows I have open trying to remember where I was, what I was about to do next. It doesn't seem like a lot of time, but multiply this kind of time by oh, say...10 interruptions a day, and you have quite a bit of time where I'm simply trying to get my whits about me again. It would be far better if I didn't get up and go with them, but in a company culture where it is expected, you meet a lot of resistance. No one wants to be told to put in a ticket when you're right there, and no one wants to be told that you'll come see them later.

The moral is simply that I think it very important to have processes in place, and to enforce them. Ultimately I believe it aids productivity and makes for a better workplace. The "drop everything" mentality is nice in theory, but ultimately harmful when unchecked. I believe you can foster an environment where people feel like they're important and their issues matter without adversely affecting the productivity of your IT staff.

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