One challenge facing Managing Directors running SMEs today is managing the businesses Information Systems (IS) and it’s Information Techology (IT) and it’s Communications infrastructure.  The three are sometimes conjoined and referred to as ICT, especially in the Public Sector. And nowadays the complexity includes Mobile phones Smartphones and Tablets as well as all things that might sometimes be referred to as Computers, Telecommunications, Data, The Web, the Internet and nowadays the Cloud.

This article is to help thinking about the management of IT systems, and expecially to help the astute Managing Director ask great questions that enable them to gain an insight into their systems.

My perspective is that it is important to look separately at four aspects:

  • The infrastructure – the platform upon which everything is stored, flows or is processed – analogous to the electricity cables or gas pipes of a house.  And all the equipment used to manage the flow of gas or electricity, or in this case the flow of data and information.
  • The applications – the things that actually do something with the data.  Analagous to the toaster, the washing machine, the fridge and the television that make use fo the infrastructure to do something useful.
  • The data – the information held and processed by applications running on the infrastructure.
  • The management – the people, processes and systems whether internal or external used to manage all three of the above aspects of systems.

At a high level we need to examine each of those areas and ask what do we have now, how well does that support the business and what are the shortcomings and risks of that approach.

Techniques for doing so include:

  • Interviews with staff and managers.
  • Process walking.  Follow the process through the business from initial receipt to despatch and include data analysis.
  • Process mapping.  Workshops to do the above using postit notes – typically attached to large sheets of brown paper!
  • Data modelling. What data is used by whom, when and what for?
  • Demonstrations. Showing how systems work.

Key questions to ask include:

Role focused questions

  • What do you do and how do you do it?
  • Where do you get information from and what do you do with it?
  • How do you process transactions through the business?
  • What happens each day/week/month/year and

Applications focused questions

  • What is this system used for?
  • How does it link to other systems?
  • What important information comes out of it?
  • What are the problems with it?
  • What is IT services role in supporting it?
  • Is it easy to learn and use?
  • Does it include all information needed?
  • What kind of manual activity is needed and why?
  • Are applications built in-house or are they bought in packages?
  • How are applications developed, enhanced and supported?
  • How long does it take to get to know the applicaitons?
  • What ‘workarounds’ occur?
  • Is it providing suitable management data as well as fulfilling its operational function?
  • How good is the supplier relationship like?
  • What skills are needed to manage the applications? How easy are they to obtain?
  • How do applications link together? Are there any workaround / bespoke programs used to link applications?
  • Are information systems used simply to support the business strategy or do they enable the business to compete in ways it could not do without systems

Infrastructure focused quesitons

  • What technical platforms do we use?
  • Are they all the same as or compatible with each other?
  • Is the IT physically located in house, in a known site or in the cloud?
  • Who supplies, manages and backs up the systems?
  • How are the systems protected from wilful or accidental physical damage or information corruption?
  • What is the disaster recovery process and who manages it?
  • Why is a particular platform used?
  • Performance – Does it operate quick enough?
  • What are the costs? Are they capital and operational or subscription based?
  • How good is the supplier relationship like?
  • What skills are needed to manage the infrastructure? How easy are they to obtain? What is the extent/ up-to-dateness of networking.
  • What type of downtime is being experienced?
  • Are there space problems? If so what’s causing them?
  • How old are the systems?

Data focused questions

  • What data is stored where?
  • Who uses it?
  • What types of questions are asked of the data?
  • How is access managed to ensure only the right people have access to the right systems and information?
  • Where is data moved manually from one system to another?

Management focused questions

  • Is there a department responsible for ‘systems’? What is it called?
  • Is the outlook of that department Strategic Business or Technical?
  • How is the department viewed within the organisation?
  • If the organisation is part of a group, does a group function manage or coordinate any aspect of IT?
  • What is the level of staffing of IT?
  • Are there skills shortages?
  • Is there a backlog of unfulfilled important requirements?
  • How are IT and its staff perceived by the organisation?
  • Are there systems within the organisation which the IT Department doesn’t know about or has no stake in?
  • How well respected is the IT function now and under previous IT managers?
  • Is IS well-resourced? What is the attitude to replacement systems?