The Network’s Growing Strategic Role

Networks are no longer a back-office function. It’s time for network managers to assert strategic leadership.

The Network’s Growing Strategic Role
(Credit: Izel Photography - A / Alamy Stock Photo)

When I visit network managers, one of the things they tell me that they like best about their jobs is that they don’t have to attend as many meetings as other IT managers. However, new thoughts on the strategic importance of networks—and the need for network managers to attend corporate risk management and strategic meetings and be visible—are beginning to emerge.

The drivers for network manager engagement with corporate risk management and other strategic corporate concerns are the growing number of cyberattacks and security breaches that can bring down companies and their reputations and the central role that networks play in most strategic IT work. When post-mortem analysis is done after a security breach or attack, the conclusion almost always points to network vulnerabilities. When a major business initiative that involves IT goes live, the network is a major facilitator.

“In our experience, companies that invest time and energy to understand their networks and collaborative relationships greatly improve their chances of making successful organizational changes,” said McKinsey. “Sophisticated approaches can map networks and identify the key points of connectivity where value is created or destroyed.”

Focusing on the strategic importance of the network

Of course, many network managers, especially in smaller companies, don’t quite see it like this. Instead, they confine their involvement to completing a request to connect IoT (Internet of Things) and automation in a manufacturing plant to a zero trust network, or to add workstations and nodes to the corporate network for a new company department.

Should they limit themselves to just the daily routine of fulfilling work orders?

The answer is "no" because the growth of remote offices and employees and the expansion of IoT have added many more vulnerability points to corporate networks. These risk points have transformed the network into a corporate strategic and risk management topic of discussion—and that discussion is further extended when one considers how networks are involved in almost every phase of IT work.

A plan to address strategic issues

Just what can network managers bring to the strategic table?

Here are two things:

Avail visibility to network vulnerabilities

Network managers can brief other organization executives on what the network security breach attempts and risks have been over the past 12 months and the past 30 days. This will call attention to network security gaps that need to be remedied and, in some cases, budgeted for.

Getting together with upper management and end-user managers is important because a prime source of network security breaches is the users themselves. Users leave their workstations unattended. They can carelessly share passwords, take sensitive work home, or unsuspectedly open Websites and email attachments that are launched by phishers and contain malware. When user managers receive monthly briefings on network security findings and threats, these managers are likely to carry the message back to their departments and enforce better security habits among their staffs. This elevates and improves user security awareness across the enterprise.

Some network managers might argue that it is the CIO who should make these monthly security reports, but there is a real case for network managers to make the presentations because it is network managers who best understand the nature of the security threats that confront the network daily, and who can explain them.

Present future outlooks that are strategic

Network managers should have someone on their staffs who researches forward trends in cyber security threats so the company can prepare in advance for them. These observations are a form of proactive risk management that informs upper management and positions the company so it can protect its information assets before a new wave of cyber threats hits. By letting upper management know in advance what types of security threats are emerging and could confront networks in the future, network managers are acting strategically and proactively. They are also positioning themselves for success in the budget room when they ask for new investments in zero trust networks, security, monitoring, and observability tools because key decision makers have already been briefed.

The second prong to a future network outlook is looking ahead at strategic business directions and the projects that are being planned to move the business forward.

For example, if you know that the company wants to create a new and enhanced e-commerce site or to move the distributed IT operations of its remote sites and newly acquired subsidiaries to the cloud, investments in communications bandwidth and cloud-to-cloud security will be needed. Business initiatives that involve AI (artificial intelligence) will also increase network payloads. They will require more bandwidth, storage, and processing. In these cases, the best approach is to collaborate with the end business managers who are sponsoring these business initiatives and strategies, with the goal of bundling the network investments and budget requests into overall project costs. This will raise awareness of the network as a key strategic asset and enabler.

Final thoughts on the strategic role of the network

Network managers aren’t enthusiastic meeting go-ers, but a carefully selected attendance of strategic meetings can bolster awareness of the network as a strategic corporate asset and render it easier to obtain funding for major network upgrades that align with the business.

Your CIO will often be willing to attend these meetings and make your points for you, but there is no better spokesperson for the network than the network manager who lives with it.

As the Harvard Business Review opined, “ Showing strategic thinking skills tells your bosses that you’re able to think for yourself and make decisions that position the organization for the future. It assures them that you aren’t making decisions in a vacuum but are considering how other departments might be affected or how the outside world will respond.”

This is exactly where networks—and those managing them—need to be.

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About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett, President, Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm.

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