The Value of Strategic Network Design


Every organization has its own philosophy when it comes to managing its IT network. And over the years as a senior engineer, I’ve learned to recognize that philosophy almost immediately. While each company is distinct in how its network evolved and how it performs, most IT departments manage and maintain that network with some combination of a reactive and proactive mindset.

Unfortunately, most tend to be more reactive than proactive. Organizations fire up their various devices and software solutions, hoping for the best in terms of interoperability and reliability. If something goes wrong, they hustle to fix the problem or make an upgrade – usually bolting something new onto the network each time.

While this approach can keep things working in a patchwork way, it can prove to be problematic and even debilitating for the long term. I call it the “dirt in/dirt out” approach, where various solutions are cobbled together on an as-needed basis. It doesn’t take long before the entire network is simply a mess. And when things get that messy, nobody wants to get their hands dirty trying to clean it up.

So, how do you avoid that “dirt in/dirt out” way of thinking, and spare yourself from the mess it’s bound to create? The proactive mindset. Think strategically about your network design as something that can be constantly improved, enhanced, and upgraded – not just when things go wrong.

The reactive or tactical approach means solving problems as they arise. The proactive or strategic approach means developing a deeper strategy for network performance. Strategic design means thinking about your network for the long term. Yes, you’re doing the day-to-day deployment and repair that takes place at the tactical level, but you’re also monitoring performance, optimizing devices, and staying ahead of software updates. You frame your network view in terms of ongoing improvement, not just immediate response to issues.

A network issue is both something to address in the moment – and, sometimes, an ideal opportunity to make larger improvements that can best serve your company going forward.

Is the strategic approach more costly and more time consuming? It can be in the short run. But just like a homeowner who is performing regular, ongoing maintenance rather than doing repairs only as they arise, strategic design is the best way to save yourself from even more cost and more time lost down the road.

Real-World Strategic Thinking

Let me give you an example. I just finished an engagement with a company that has offices in several major cities coast to coast. What’s more, the company partners closely with several different organizations serving a shared mission. It needs to align infrastructure, including phone and email, each time a new partner comes aboard.

Tactical thinking would have insisted on just dealing with the immediate challenge, without considering the fact that our client would have to resolve this scenario again the next time they brought in another site.

So we started looking at how this company was planning to unify systems among its own offices, and quickly realized that even if it wasn’t sure when other partner organizations might be ready to integrate with it, we could create a network solution that would make bringing on any new partner much, much easier. In short, instead of working to simply get two different offices to cooperate, we thought longer term and stood up a solution that would work right away and with any future partnerships.

Strategic thinking met that present need, and made sure our client was ready to handle inevitable future demands. Yes, it was more expensive up front, but there was little additional end-user impact, and there’s no need for further customization for each new partner

Now, don’t get me wrong. A tactical approach is sometimes all you need. You might have a single issue with your network. You want to make it right. Tactical approaches to IT challenges have a near-term priority, often what I call a “just make it work again” attitude. And this is a healthy attitude when you are taking expense and level of effort into account.

The problem comes when IT departments are all tactics, no strategy. Always taking the tactical approach can lead to the proliferation of point-of-problem solutions that may not always equal the sum of their parts. A band aid here because you had to, a one-off there because it saved you some money… I get it.

A strategic approach, though, leads to solutions that scale better, mitigate long-term risk, and give you a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Leveraging strategic design and planning upfront in the project lifecycle will help you to ensure that you capture both short- and long-term business and technical requirements.

If you’re wondering whether your own organization’s approach to managing its network might be long on tactics and short on strategy, let’s make time to talk.

One response to “The Value of Strategic Network Design

  1. I love the term “accrued technical debt” from the book Project Phoenix. Paying interest on debt exactly describes the hidden staff time cost of unplanned tactical hacks that don’t get cleaned up.

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