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IT asset management need not be daunting.

IT assets can feel like a garage full of stuff–all of it might be useful, costly, and necessary, but it’s tough to find anyone who wants to organize it. It can be even more difficult to dedicate the time necessary for what can be a dirty job.

The good news is that creating an asset management program doesn’t require a great deal of heavy lifting, either figuratively or literally, and the better news is that it can save time and money in the long run, and even prevent unneeded purchases down the line.

Although asset management has traditionally been the domain of large enterprises that have to track thousands of computers and applications, the tactic can be of great benefit to small companies, which often have to follow the same compliance rules as their bigger brethren.

Putting asset information in one place reduces the likelihood of missed upgrades, skipped security patches, squandered support time, and budget waste. Of course, it also means setting aside a large chunk of time and putting in effort that usually goes toward maintaining a very busy IT department. But intense work done upfront will yield long-term results, and may even show short-term gains from fewer support calls and quicker purchasing decisions.

Creating a Plan

When developing an asset tracking plan, the first steps may feel like facing that garage packed with god-knows-what, but just like cleaning out a physical space, the same tactics apply: Enlist help, make a plan, and decide where everything should go.

Many companies have discovered that it cuts down significantly on input time if each member of the IT department takes an areas of asset information and is put in charge of tracking and managing that portion. For instance, the person responsible for desktops and laptops would not only jot down purchase dates and expected refresh dates, but also relevant maintenance agreements, serial numbers, and upgrade schedules. Once a plan is in place, that person would also update the data, and track maintenance requests.

One challenge in this early phase is simply the large amount of time needed to do the work, especially if there’s been only an ad hoc system in place in the past. Some companies have found it beneficial to set aside a few weekends for the task, and make it an intense, short-term process rather than a months-long endeavor that is always considered secondary to IT’s daily duties. Hint: Pizza helps.

“Getting all members of the IT department involved is important, since they’ll have to use the system,” says Ann Westerheim, consultant at IT advisory firm Ekaru. “Break down responsibilities and, although it’s not going to be fun exactly, it doesn’t have to be dreadful either.”

If the IT department is a one-person operation, it’s usually advisable to enlist some help from others in the company who have a certain degree of tech savvy. Lone-wolf IT managers are usually overtaxed, which is why they tend to put asset management on the bottom of the to-do list, but offering a bit of overtime pay (and maybe two pizzas) can get enough data input done to give the manager a good start on asset tracking.

Once responsibility is assigned, it’s crucial to understand what needs to be inventoried. Some companies have developed asset management systems only to discover that they forgot to input vital components like licensing agreements or purchase dates.

There’s a list of items necessary to include (see sidebar), but basically, the more information, the better. That includes physical details, like where a laptop is stored or what room has a certain router, as well as seemingly irrelevant details like support phone numbers and salesperson names. If a security issue or breakdown occurs, items like vendor support lines will be handy, and will cut down on scrambling to find the information.

Many small companies have found that automated tools are handy, affordable, and give a nice framework for data input. These tools can be especially good for security, since they often include patch management updates and reminders that are sent to e-mail, pagers, and cell phones. In the past few years, a number of vendors have recognized that SMBs could use simple asset tracking programs, and now a wealth of options are on the market. Vendors specializing in the area include AssetPoint, Smartware Group, Novell, and Intuit.

“Smaller companies really require tools that present as little work as possible,” says David Weiss, general manager of the Information Technology Solutions unit at software firm Inuit. “Especially in terms of security, having streamlined applications can help them keep up with patches, because they know which systems need to be patched and where all their assets are.”

Making it Work

Once an asset tracking system is in place, enjoy that momentary feeling of satisfaction that comes from having your inventory been spiffed up and arranged neatly–because next is girding yourself for the challenge of actually managing it.

As with any system involving technology, change is a constant. Applications get updated, or replaced entirely. Users request new devices, software, and widgets, and management tweaks sales and marketing plans. All the components that keep a company moving along nicely also cause asset tracking to be a continually evolving beast.

“Keeping everything organized and centralized is important, but it can be difficult because there’s so much to manage,” says Duke Chung, CEO of help-desk software developer Parature. A few years ago, Parature created its own tracking application that allowed users to create help-desk tickets and input technology assets themselves.

For smaller companies, putting management tasks into the hands of users like that could be an option, especially if the staff is particularly involved in technology buying decisions. That, too, becomes an ever-changing environment. “We’re constantly thinking of how to improve it,” says Chung. “I’m not sure we’ll ever be done thinking of better ways to manage it.”

One of the most vital components of management is to ditch a process if it’s not effective. Often, Westerheim notes, companies are hesitant to scrap a routine they’ve just put into place, because they feel as if they’ll have to start all over again. But when a process isn’t as hoped, it gives IT valuable insight into what does need to be done.

“You know when something’s not working,” says Westerheim. “Use common sense and acknowledge that you should change it, or you risk wasting time.”

When all asset management processes seem to be humming along nicely, with incoming applications logged appropriately, devices easily located, and PCs marked by their refresh cycle, then it’s time to actually look ahead.

Every good asset plan should have flexibility enough to accommodate changes in company strategy or last-minute requests. That may mean creating a budget reserve for unexpected items–the sales force suddenly needing 10 new BlackBerry handhelds, for example–that can roll over from quarter to quarter.

Like any robust database, asset management systems will change constantly, and may not look the same this year as it does next year. But there’s no beating that feeling of having everything just where you need it.

Elizabeth Millard ([email protected]) is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.

Asset Inventory Checklist

Items to include in every asset management inventory:

* PCs, laptops, and handheld devices

* Flash drives and other portable drives

* Boxed applications

* Web-based applications

* Expected upgrade schedule for hardware and software items

* Licensing timeframes

* Network assets

* Maintenance agreements

* Compliance information

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