The Importance of Asset Standards – Handling Requirements with the Right Amount of Choice

By Russell Parker

What if you went out to eat at a restaurant and instead of being given a menu or offered the daily specials the server just asked you what you wanted to eat and everything was prepared for you custom? It might be an interesting occasional novelty, but would be quite frustrating most of the time. Far more effort is expended in making the decision, at a far higher cost of delivery, and without leveraging the chef’s ability to select ingredients or recipes. It sounds ridiculous in the context of a restaurant, but in many ways this is what IT often does to its business users by not having defined asset standards. Worse, we often complain about the variety of things the business asks for when left to their own devices.

Vendors who offer IT services in the cloud have figured out that offering a “menu” is best. In most cases you cannot choose every detail of what you get; you pick from a standard set of options and configurations. They know that to do otherwise will both confuse potential customers and drive their costs through the roof. There is no reason we cannot do the same internally. We in IT are the expert chefs when it comes to the IT Infrastructure used by our organizations. We owe it to both our business users and to ourselves to use that expertise to create a menu which allows us to meet their requirements in a cost effective and manageable way.

Standards and the Lifecycle

As with the menu at a restaurant, having standards can make or break your ability to effectively manage your IT Infrastructure. Most ITAM lifecycles start with asset acquisition or perhaps the user request, but creating “the menu” is a crucial process which starts much earlier. Lifecycles often refer to managing an asset from cradle to grave, but this does not start early enough. Extending the analogy, rather than starting with the cradle we need to start managing at conception. By this I mean nothing, whether hardware, software, or services, should be acquired or even requested without the preliminary steps of assessment and validation as a standard. This may sound overly rigid, but only by tightly controlling what can come into our organizations can we hope to effectively manage what does come in. We have all lived through the other end of the spectrum where there are no controls and the first we learn of some new item is when it arrives at the receiving dock, or worse, turns up during a physical inventory. It is all but impossible to manage your infrastructure well in those scenarios. In order to do so we must get out in front of the problem and standards provide the foundation to do so successfully.

Handling New Requirements

It is crucial to begin managing things when they are still just a potential choice or a concept. If someone can have it, we need to be ready to manage it. However, IT is certainly not going to be the source of all new ideas. There will be cases where the business has a new requirement which cannot be met by an established standard and this situation may happen frequently. These new requirements must be assessed in the context of existing standards and, if necessary, a new standard developed before fulfilling the request. If there is sufficient business need to make an exception and fulfill the request in advance of the new standard, we will at least be highly conscious of having done so. By being aware of the exceptions, we can manage them and pass on the added costs of being off-standard to the requester.

The Right Amount of Choice

As valuable as strong standards are to us as Asset Managers, making our lives easier is just a small part of the benefit. Standards also help our business users, but since users expect complete flexibility, it may take a while for them to realize it and stop screaming. Choice is a good thing, but too much choice can be just as big a problem as too little. There are so many options available to us in the world that just about everyone has experienced some degree of analysis paralysis when trying to make a selection. When it comes to IT’s business users, this certainly holds true. Very few really want to go to the trouble of figuring out just what they need, but in the absence of a well defined set of standards, they have to. Once they get used to having a menu they will be happier than they were before. Having strong corporate standards is also one key to being able to realize significant potential cost savings. By allowing them unlimited options we actually do them and the company as a whole a disservice by failing to offer standard options as cost effectively as possible.

One of the biggest problems with making a shift toward having strong, policy supported standards is that doing so is an investment. Worse: it is seen as an all or nothing or chicken and the egg type situation. The all or nothing objector asks what good does having standards for only some things do for us? And the chicken and the egg objector agrees that it would be great if standards were in place, but how do we start when there is already so much chaos? To address both of these objections, the best thing you can do is pick an area, draw a line in the sand, and start there. One good thing about IT is that in three years 80% of everything will turn over, so create a four year plan. Even though the existing infrastructure may be a disaster, if you put standards in place for new things coming in you just have to hold on and the chaos will die out over time. With any luck, there may even be areas which have already developed fairly strong standards and you can find allies there.

Start with Software

All else being equal, I would suggest you start with software. Why start with software? And what type of software? Software is so varied that it might seem like the last thing we should try and tackle, not the first. There are several reasons why standardizing how software is used and managed within the organization can be a good place to start. The immense variation in software can actually be viewed as a strength, rather than a weakness when looking at where to begin putting standards in place. Software is not one massive, monolithic, block which has to be tackled all at once. It segments into chunks quite easily across differences such as platform (desktop vs. server, Windows vs. non-Windows, virtual vs. physical, etc.), business use, software type and/or the software vendor. The intersection of these can produce smaller, more manageable and discrete chunks to go after.

Moreover, the fact that software is so varied and chaotic makes the advantages gained from putting standards in place all the more obvious. You also have all the drivers related to license compliance and overall SAM initiatives to help make your case. Any dedicated Software Asset Management team will become your instant allies the moment you start talking to them about standards. This does not help if you ARE the Software Asset Management team, but use the value to be gained from standards to reach out to other groups within the organization and find those who can help you evangelize the importance of standards. The list of potential allies is extensive, but here are some good places to start looking; Contract Management, Security, Release Management, Operations, Procurement, Service Catalog, IT Finance.

The fight to establish strong asset standards is well worth waging. Pick your first few battles carefully, gather your allies across the organization, and make your business case. You may well find that once they understand the long term vision and value, the very people you thought would fight you the hardest become some of your staunchest supporters. Get some initial successes and then keep going!

About the Author

Russ Parker is the President of Golden Ratio, Inc.