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A virtual workplace poses new IT challenges

A virtual workplace poses new IT challenges

Just as workforces have become less centralized, IT departments have gotten more so

One of the interesting things that's been happening over the past few years is that just as workforces have become less centralized, IT departments have gotten more so. The vast majority of companies I work with consider themselves virtual, meaning that employees work together on teams from widely distributed geographies. Yet fewer IT teams are virtual in the same sense -- in many cases IT teams are increasingly consolidated into a few central sites.

This has an interesting couple of consequences. First is the experience gap: IT departments aren't always personally facing the challenges of other employees when it comes to working remotely from supervisors and colleagues. Second is the tools gap: IT staffers often aren't relying on the same collaborative tools as other employees. I've heard stories such as: "We're supporting 300 BlackBerries for our sales team, but we don't have them ourselves in IT."

That comes back to the fact that IT departments often don't need collaborative tools with the same intensity that other employees do, because of IT departments' relatively greater centralization. So here are some tips and techniques that enable IT departments to deliver services to their dispersed employees:

Take the lead in wireless. Last week, I talked about the wireless revolution and why it matters. IT departments should get ahead of the curve by consolidating wireless purchases into a common budget (if not a single provider, which is not always either possible or desirable). IT should also drive strategic planning for various wireless technologies.

Look to Web 2.0 technologies. They're not just for consumers -- Web 2.0 technologies are designed to enable a far-flung set of collaborators (who often don't know each other) to interact effectively. That makes them ideal for enterprise collaboration, if they're implemented correctly. The trick lies in selecting the most effective tools and making them user friendly. Wikis, for instance, work well if they're outfitted with a WYSIWYG editor.

Pay attention to the branch. Roughly 90 percent of employees work in locations other than the headquarters office, which means many are in small branch offices lacking local IT support. Easy-to-manage, all-in-one branch devices that combine routers,firewalls, bandwidth optimization and other functionality can increase reliability without adding headaches.

Emphasize the importance of the WAN. When teams are geographically concentrated, losing WAN connectivity isn't a big deal -- everybody can get together and collaborate in a conference room. But when employees are geographically dispersed, a WAN outage can be a productivity disaster. Issues such as reliability and latency take on particular significance with real-time collaboration (a two-minute outage can really put a damper on, say, a telepresence session).

The bottom line? Virtual workplaces often put surprising stresses on IT and telecommunications teams, but forewarned is forearmed. The best way to enable the virtual workplace is to plan ahead.

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