Editor’s Note: Little Boxes and Outside Help

Last week, I wrote about some solutions to the problems small organizations face when it comes time to hire full-time IT staff they can’t afford. Though it can be tough, there are ways to deal with the limitations of simply making server and network maintenance a part-time task for an inspired amateur in the organization. At the same time, there is a pair of issues I didn’t look at too closely.

Frequent Crossnodes contributor Beth Cohen dropped me a line to remind me that the longevity of these workers isn’t great: they’ll outgrow a limited role as their skills increase and their abilities improve. Eventually, unless their “real” job in your organization is compelling to them on its own, they’ll leave. She’s right, and that’s an issue that earns a firm tick in the “cons” column of leaving your IT administration to part-timers.

Managers can insulate against the turbulence this can cause by stressing documentation. If turnover’s an ongoing issue, though, it’s probably time to consider diverting the education expenses I encouraged you to invest in last week and shop around for a local consultant who doesn’t mind taking on small organizations. Many specialize in working out solutions for outfits that don’t want on-site personnel, and with the boom in networking appliances and free software, they can usually come up with something that “just runs” and won’t be too hard to fix quickly if something goes wrong.

There’s another issue consultants can help solve, which is the difficult and thorny issue of enforcing sane use of company computing resources.

A common drift in companies these days is to write up a fairly strict acceptable use policy (AUP) most users will sign either unthinkingly, or with a clear sense that they aren’t so much agreeing to the AUP as they are admitting that they read it. Some AUPs are well-composed and lucid rundowns of how company computing assets can be used, others seem to be oral histories of every Internet scare story of the past decade. I once saw one that was very clear there was to be “no ‘hot’ mail,” which really meant “no dirty chat,” but had the effect of scaring the daylights out of three elderly secretaries who swore they only used the popular free mail service at lunch to talk to their grandchildren and were now wondering if they’d be found out and fired.

When a real violation of the same AUP resulted in quiet disciplinary action, rumors flew because a monitoring technology no one knew about had been used in seemingly uneven and random enforcement. Because a part time technologist had been involved, it created a truly unpleasant atmosphere between her and the people she worked with away from the server room, who became worried she was spying on them to advance in office politics.

Though there are a few notable exceptions, most full-time, professional IT people (and certainly outside consultants) don’t have the time or will to snoop arbitrarily, and generally have some strong cultural inclinations against it. Because they’re separated from the rest of the staff organizationally, there’s no perceived advantage to being able to read a rival office worker’s correspondence with the boss.

It’s a conundrum, because policies need to be enforced, and organizations where there’s no full-time IT staff will tend to be more lax where observance of an AUP is concerned.

The most important thing to remember is that attempts at secrecy are pointless and damaging compared to simply informing your staff that one of their number will be handling enforcement, and that their peer’s performance will be evaluated as much on his ethical and reasonable conduct as it is his ability to ferret out mp3 hoarders or compulsive personal instant messaging.

It’s also important to remember that the stress this sort of enforcement can cause might be more than you want to deal with, in which case a low-maintenance appliance periodically serviced by an independent consultant should look more attractive. Either way, openness and a solid AUP that addresses concrete concerns instead of out-of-touch rumors will save you some turmoil.

Michael Hall is the Managing Editor of Crossnodes.

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