The saying "More heads are better than one" has dicey applicability in IT management. As with most technological problems, too many cooks in the kitchen can make a problem worse.
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Yet seeking assistance outside of one's own head and team has long been a hallmark of how IT departments do their jobs. It's easy to forget our pre-Web lives, when Usenet was a hotbed for rough collaboration in posts along the lines of "How do I fix this problem? See error messages below." Prior to that time, we can assume that there was only darkness: using the phone or actually talking to people face to face.
Collaborative IT management
Joking aside, we've come a long way since the days of Googling with error codes. Here, we'll consider what some vendors and services are doing to move beyond the usual methods of collaborative IT management.
The emerging methods can be grouped into two categories: sharing configuration and group problem solving. Both enable collaboration beyond the firewall, pulling in help from outside of the data center payroll.
In the broadest sense of the term, here configuration means settings, customizations, reports, alert thresholds or anything that customizes how a given piece of IT management software is used.
By far, the most popular shared configuration is around reports, charts and dashboards. In a process-centric mindset like contemporary IT management, reports are the basis for the work IT department performs: namely, "Are we helping make money or just burning money?" Any given vendor or project team can't hope to implement all the reports any user of the IT management platform will want.
However, chances are better -- not guaranteed -- that at least one other person who uses that platform has encountered a similar reporting requirement and already solved it. The more common the problem, of course, the higher the chances.
Companies like Spiceworks, Splunk and Paglo not only allow for the sharing of reports, but often facilitate the sharing of alerting thresholds, searches (in the case of Splunk and Paglo), and other configurations and extensions for the platform.
More than just providing the ability to export, send email and import shared configuration, these offerings use collaborative hubs that often link directly into the software itself. Think of them as iPhone App Stores that allow IT staff to browse configuration and instantly add and start using that configuration.
Group problem solving
While preventing problems is equally critical, one of the most important tasks an IT department performs is fixing problems when they occur. A functioning team can easily collaborate intra-team and may be lucky enough to pull in help from people and teams in their own organization. Counterintuitively, seeking help outside the organization can sometimes be faster.
Much of the success of open source for software developers comes from the rapid response that various open source communities give to pleas for help in forums, IRC and other conversation mediums. Automating this process for IT departments beyond keyword searches of knowledge bases and the web is one of the more interesting emerging innovations in IT management.
Ruby on Rails management specialists FiveRuns provide an interesting example of group problem solving with their TuneUp service. When an admin encounters a problem in a Rails install, they snapshot the system with the TuneUp agent and then send that snapshot to the TuneUp community. Once this snap-shot is loaded, the community can look over the bundled information and help figure out what's going wrong.
The future of collaborative IT management
IT management vendors and projects are increasingly adding in collaborative IT management functionality, or are planning to in the short-term. Rarely do I speak with a vendor who doesn't have collaborative IT management functionality on their road-map for the near future.
The role of SaaS: As more SaaS options emerge -- such as Paglo -- the ability to pool together the collective wisdom and woes of IT departments becomes a real possibility. While there are regulatory and cultural barriers for sending IT data beyond the firewall, innovators that balance organizational privacy (e.g., by scrubbing the raw data of sensitive information) with the ability to solve problems quickly are finding ways to satisfy those concerns.
Whuffie: For the individual IT staff member, collaborative IT management promises more than a more effective way to do their job (the stuff of management dreams, more-so than individual admins). The open source movement has proven that the "whuffie," (reputation) individuals acquire in various communities can help their careers. In the shifty employment-times IT staff live in. The reputation that an admin can build in the cross firewall communities may provide a valuable currency when securing their present job or acquiring a new one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Coté is analyst at RedMonk, covering primarily enterprise software, specializing in open source, IT management, software development, the Web, and social/collaborative software. He is RedMonk's IT Management Lead. His blog is available at PeopleOverProcess.com, and he produces the RedMonk podcast and the video podcast, RedMonkTV.