How to overcome the main challenges faced by IT departments

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IT departments always used to be the butt of jokes. Perhaps this was because being nerdy and geeky wasn't hip and cool until social media took the world by storm and made multimillionaires out of self-confessed geeks like Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.

Technology firms like Apple and Google are partly responsible for making consumer IT cool, but the IT department is still often viewed as an impenetrable world only inhabited by geeks and boffins that are often arrogant, rude and obstructive.

IT needs a PR makeover and this is probably the first and most important challenge that any IT professional has to contend with. Its consequences are far reaching. Not only is it hard to recruit good staff into IT, but the relationship with the rest of the business and employees can be strained, which doesn't help with job satisfaction or prospects.

So how can you alleviate the challenges faced by your team?

Staffing is key

In the US, it is forecast that 10,000 baby boomers will be eligible to retire every day for the next 15 to 20 years. Some of these boomers work in IT departments and their knowledge of the organization and its wants and needs will be lost.

Replacing boomers can be tough, as finding good, qualified staff isn't easy and today's graduates and students entering the workforce have different motivations. They are unlikely to stay in a job for life, so a motivating, flexible and challenging environment can help you attract the best staff, but also ones that stay for longer.

For Google's CIO Ben Fried, employing the best people in IT is not only a way of bringing IT costs down, it also has a huge role to play in improving the image of the IT department.

He told the Harvard Business Review that the IT team should be more knowledgeable about technology than other employees. This might seem common sense, but is actually not an easy task in today's world of tech savvy workers. If you have a broken laptop you want the first person you contact in the IT department to know more about it than you do and not offer a series of pre-scripted questions and responses as they are the lowest paid support service.

Having fewer, better qualified and more knowledgeable support staff, he argues reduces costs as they can tackle more problems and do so more quickly.

Work with people, not against them

IT departments traditionally had the role of the enforcer, preventing employees from connecting their own devices to the company network to maintain and protect business systems and networks.

With consumer proliferation of smartphones and tablets that battle has been firmly lost and users now bring in their own devices and apps and use them for personal and work-related tasks. Cisco estimates there will be 1.62 billion mobile devices in the office by 2016, so the trend is increasing.

Embracing rather than preventing Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is now the best approach for IT departments, who still need to protect company data and information.

According to Paul Simoneau, a senior instructor and course director with Global Knowledge, the IT department's solution should be to controlling data access and securing the organization’s data rather than being pre-occupied with preventing users access to the network.

First, secure the data on servers, he says. Then provide users access to that data in the form of mobile web apps. This lets them access the data on any server they are authorized to access, but doesn't store any data on the mobile device.

Embrace mobile technologies

If your business hasn't gone mobile yet, then it almost certainly will. Mobile technology empowers individual employees to process, consume, manipulate and share huge amounts of information nearly instantly, from almost anywhere in the world, and often at very low cost.

All this mobility creates new IT management challenges. Mobile technology, combined with the related BYOD trend, is pervasive and ubiquitous providing challenges for IT departments who must integrate these mobile devices with IT systems and secure the networks against a wide range of mobile threats, including malware, unauthorized access and theft.

In a recent CIO Barometer survey, 65 percent of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) noted the development of mobile applications as one of IT's major challenges. Nearly as many (63 percent) also cited managing BYOD and other consumer technologies in the workplace as nearly as important.

Leverage big data

Harnessing data is one of the big tests facing businesses in the information age. Data growth is accelerating and anticipated to grow by 800 percent in the next five years. Understanding the scale, diversity and complexity of data demonstrates the challenge. Every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. This comes from a wide range of sources, such as social media updates, emails, digital pictures, climate sensors and cell phone GPS signals to name a few.

There is huge potential in capturing and understanding data, much of which is unstructured, to inform business analytics and customer behavior.

The State of the CIO 2014 survey rated leveraging data and analytics among the most important technology initiatives in the coming year with 72 percent of CIOs seeking to improve the use of data and analytics to benefit business decisions and outcomes.

But if big data offers huge opportunities, protecting data and maintaining its integrity is a challenge that many IT departments are well aware of, especially given the fact that 71 percent of security breaches targeted user devices.

And according to Eric Williams, executive vice president and chief information officer at Catalina Marketing Corp., another big challenge is resisting the temptation to gather every available piece of information available to only throw it into a data warehouse. It is much more effective and satisfactory to take a limited sample of data to start with and get real insight out of it, then grow the methodology for analysis.

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