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When IT Chickens Come Home to Roost

In that vein, I had a chance to sit down with Patrick Hubbard and Lawrence Garvin of SolarWinds last week at the show, and they made a strong pitch for network manager/engineer types to engage more with business leaders -- and for those business leaders to listen.

The stick in this transaction would be the threat of a Target-like security breach into your network, while the carrot would be experiences like the one a SolarWinds customer had in reducing spoilage rates for chicken being shipped to grocery stores.

First, the stick: SolarWinds makes software that can, among other things, simulate the effects of policy changes in firewalls, and how extensive the repercussions of such a change might be in other parts of the network. To an IT audience, that sounds like a perfectly reasonable, beneficial tool to have at your disposal, but Patrick Hubbard noted that such tools, in the hands of network administrators, can drive "IT blowback -- which everyone hates." That is, not everyone wants to hear the IT guy raising a concern about opening security holes when some business-unit executive is promising millions in cost savings or revenue generation if you change a process as soon as possible, without necessarily waiting for this kind of diligence.

To some degree, executives are paying more attention to IT concerns in the wake of highly-publicized security breaches, Lawrence Garvin said. It puts a lot more weight behind the IT person's warnings when executives are aware of devastating, widely-reported attacks: "Those theoretical problems have become real world," he said.

The flip side is that, just as business execs have to pay attention to IT concerns, IT/communications managers can make a tangible difference for the enterprise's bottom line if they pay attention to business processes and understand the role that the IT infrastructure plays in those processes.

This is where the chicken example comes in. In the food business, spoilage is a major source of lost revenue, and in this particular case, an IT person for a chicken processing company had an insight into a problem that the company was having -- they were losing a lot to spoilage because retailers were rejecting shipments of chicken, for which the processor then wouldn't be paid.

As Patrick Hubbard explained it, the shipping process goes as follows: Pallets of packaged chicken meat are coming off the line and out of the factory at an incredibly fast pace. The bar-coded information on processing date, shipping date, and other key safety information is scanned by a worker with a handheld scanner as the pallet is going on the truck. That bar code is then scanned again by the retailer when it arrives, and if the retailer finds that the initial scan was never actually recorded by the processor's system -- because the worker is moving so fast that he or she may not even notice that it didn't register -- that pallet has to be discarded because its safety can't be verified. And the retailer doesn't pay.

The chicken producer's IT staffer came to a simple conclusion, which he tested and verified: Improving the WiFi coverage in the plant, especially around the loading dock, would reduce the incidence of scans not registering in the split-second that the worker had to scan the fast-moving shipments. Sure enough, they added more access points and the spoilage rates fell dramatically.

Neither of these scenarios -- the cautionary security tale and the chicken-spoilage-reduction opportunity -- requires new technologies. But they do require a willingness, on both the IT and the business side, to pay more attention to what their counterparts do. That's something that is becoming paramount in the communications world.