The Columbus Urban League (CUL) is a community-based, non-profit advocacy organization whose mission is to empower families in need with data-driven, life-changing strategies designed to support the achievement of self-reliance and self-sufficiency and family stabilization. CUL currently employs approximately 75 staff who are responsible for the delivery of 19 different consumer-based programs.
Beginning in 2012, CUL began to recognize that its computing infrastructure, and therefore its entire business, was at risk. Like so many organizations that serve the community, CUL had grown and matured in an organic fashion, according to the needs of its constituency and the scope of its outreach. CUL’s supporting infrastructure had likewise grown. Over time, however, many of the specifics needed to ensure and perpetuate productivity, business continuity, and the overall health of its support systems had fallen into disrepair.
CUL engaged EXCEL to help rectify this state of affairs, and restore the CUL infrastructure to good health.
Step 1: Eliminate unnecessary expense
EXCEL began by contracting with CUL to provide staff augmentation services. In this role, EXCEL placed resources onsite to begin to plug obvious deficiencies in the day-to-day operation of the business, and to begin the process of analyzing the larger information technology needs of the organization.
The first step was to eliminate the ad hoc nature of the technology assistance that was then the norm in the organization. This involved formalizing a prioritized, first-in, first-out “inbox” paradigm for information technology service requests—a major protocol change within the organization. This might best be regarded as a formal project management initiative, but it is important to understand its diplomatic underpinnings as well. It was necessary not only to rationalize the process of addressing the IT needs of the organization, but to request and achieve formal executive approval and support for these measures. It’s a great example of how EXCEL works to solve problems organically, through negotiation and agreement, rather than through technological edict.
EXCEL personnel quickly discovered procurement inefficiencies and waste. Wireless telephones in particular were susceptible to the problem; new phones and associated telephone lines were proffered on request, without regard to available resources that were already extant. EXCEL was able to redirect these requests to existing and available equipment that had already been purchased. The resulting savings to CUL amounted to more than $10k in the first year alone.
Similar issues were found with respect to desktop computer procurement. Typically, a new CUL project initiative would generate the purchase of new computing equipment, including laptops, servers, and associated software. EXCEL was able to locate, free up, and reuse numerous computing resources that had atrophied within the organization, and direct the procurement requests to reuse these resources instead. Like the telephone example above, this resulted in many thousands of dollars of savings to the organization with no loss in functional capability.
The practical benefit of these changes has been substantial; CUL has been able to redirect these technology procurement dollars to support other areas within the organization that can benefit from additional funding.
Step 2: Efficiency Improvements
EXCEL has been successful in introducing a number of improvements to the efficiency of the CUL infrastructure as well
—without the need for new expenditures. Chief among these are improvements to the operational efficiency of Microsoft’s Active Directory. Active Directory is the central repository for security and access credentials for all users and processes requesting access to the network and computer resources in a Microsoft environment. As a result, the performance of Active Directory can and does have a dramatic impact on the overall performance and responsiveness of the entire network. In addressing the configuration and operational shortcomings of the Active Directory service, EXCEL has succeeded in dramatically improving the performance of the entire CUL network, and has correspondingly reduced the number of trouble tickets associated with Active Directory.
EXCEL has also automated many of the tasks that were once labor-intensive. A variety of scripts have been developed to automate routine maintenance procedures, and formalized systems have been put in place to reduce the time and energy associated with less frequent, but still routine procedures. These include software upgrades, new equipment installations, and the on-boarding and off-boarding of CUL employees.
EXCEL has also implemented remote management capabilities throughout the organization as the preferred method of resolving user trouble tickets. Most user difficulties can be resolved in this way, simply through the ability to remotely take control of a user’s machine in real time to diagnose and repair incidental difficulties. This technique has the added benefit of allowing the user to watch as the remediation takes place, and potentially to learn techniques to avoid future problems.
The result of these changes has been dramatic. EXCEL estimates that as much as 40% of the average CUL user’s time has been freed to attend to other matters, resulting in substantial productivity gains for the entire CUL organization. EXCEL has also dramatically reduced the staffing requirements for IT support. A typical organization of the size and complexity of CUL will require two to three full-time IT personnel to productively and effectively manage the IT infrastructure. EXCEL has reduced that to having a resource onsite for 20 hours per week.
Step 3: Outsourcing and Cloud Migration
Following the successful completion of Steps 1 and 2 above, CUL chose to entirely outsource its information technology operations to EXCEL. In accepting this responsibility, EXCEL undertook to upgrade the functional capacity of the entire organization and minimize on-site infrastructure requirements for desktops, servers, and software maintenance.
Cloud Migration of the Desktop Computing Environment
Many of the desktop computers at CUL were aging, with varying levels of software installed, and with some approaching end-of-life. EXCEL first chose to migrate the desktop environment across the entire CUL organization to Microsoft Office 365. This provided CUL with several benefits, including consistent, up-to-date front office business software for everyone in the organization, and reliable, cloud-based processes for ongoing software maintenance. EXCEL personnel guided the CUL organization during the transition to Office 365, and provided individualized training and consultation for desktop applications to those who needed it.
All software maintenance and upgrade functions are now managed remotely by EXCEL, and CUL enjoys a modern desktop computing environment that is highly functional, version-consistent, virus-free, and carefully monitored.
EXCEL then implemented a comprehensive cloud backup and business continuity solution for CUL. This involved designing and implementing a redundant, off-site data backup solution for every computing resource in the organization, as well as processes for the timely and accurate restoration of data and software in the event of a hardware failure or physical plant disaster at any one of CUL’s locations. CUL now enjoys both onsite and redundant offsite data recovery capabilities, should they be required, with the ability to be up and running almost immediately in the event of a disaster.
Remote Monitoring and Management
Because of the migration to Office 365, the burden on the local CUL servers has been reduced, and the overall in-house hardware footprint is smaller. EXCEL has further enhanced this improvement with the addition of remote monitoring and maintenance capabilities for all CUL servers. EXCEL tracks the operation and use of the servers, monitoring resource utilization, capacity trends, and early warning signs. This last capability has already proven of immense value to CUL, as a number of developing problems were identified and proactively corrected before they were able to impact normal business operations. This is one of the chief benefits of EXCEL’s Monitor.NOW service, and it continues to prove it’s value for forward thinking-organizations such as CUL.
The CUL project has been a great success, both for CUL and for EXCEL. By outsourcing their information technology needs, CUL has reduced the cost of business operations and improved the robustness of their computing environment and business continuity capabilities. Individuals have been freed up from IT maintenance activities in order to focus on the core business at CUL, and efficiency has improved accordingly.
For EXCEL, migration to the cloud and remote monitoring have reduced the level of oversight by EXCEL technical specialists by 50%, down to 20 hours weekly from 40. This represents substantial cost savings to CUL, with better performance, up-to-date software, seamless business continuity, and improved resource efficiency across the organization.
The EXCEL/CUL partnership has been extraordinary, and serves as the poster child for what is possible between a forward-thinking, visionary client, and a dedicated, capable technology vendor. It’s about optimizing people, processes, and tools in service to the needs and goals of the client organization.