Provisioning is the job of ensuring that, at all times during their career with an employer, staff have all of the necessary access privileges, equipment and other IT resources that they need in order to do their job. Managing this accurately and efficiently within budget and on time can be extremely difficult. Thankfully, software solutions are available which can help greatly.

Companies often like to describe their employees as the organisation's greatest asset. But many companies fail to realise just how much of an asset their staff really are, because they fail to adequately control the property that is entrusted to employees. Property which all too often gets lost or misappropriated during the employee's time with the company and which is frequently not accounted for when the staff member leaves the company or changes jobs.

Picture the all-too-common scene. You appoint a new marketing manager. They will need a password for the central network and for external Internet access through the firewall. They'll also need a VPN password to access the system from home, and permissions for various internal databases, external subscription-based research sites and up-to-date stock price systems, and the main intranet. They'll need a laptop and a desktop PC, and a collection of software. They'll probably be entitled to a car too, and possibly membership of the corporate gym or sports club. Then there's the PDA and mobile phone, USB memory stick, and perhaps a calling card for use with foreign payphones. Not to mention keys to the office and the code number for the alarm.

Arranging all of these items is known as provisioning. Getting everything in place for a new staff member is difficult enough, but even trickier is keeping track of those assets once they have been granted, and revoking when someone leaves the company or changes their role. Which is why many companies simply don't bother, and therefore rarely find out that an asset is being misused or is simply lost until it's too late.

Types of Misuse
Misuse of corporate assets takes many forms. All are irritating, some are merely inconvenient, yet a few can be seriously dangerous to the survival of the company or its reputation.

Among those in the merely inconvenient class might be a former employee entering their previous place of work at lunch time and getting cheap food because someone forgot to relieve them of their card when they left the job. A more dangerous action might be someone who obtains access to their previous employer's computer system because the personnel department neglected to realise that they had two different accounts and only one was disabled upon their resignation. Or perhaps an employee handed back their keys to the front door of the building on leaving, but failed to remind the company that they also had a key to the warehouse round the corner.

Stories of employees being able to gain access to the computer systems of previous employers are rife, and access still being possible after many months is not uncommon. In one case that I'm aware of, an account still hadn't been disabled after six years. In the case of someone who leaves a job only to take up a similar position with a competitor, it's hard to imagine a more damaging scenario.

Thankfully there are software tools available to assist with provisioning. They allow companies to keep track of all assets that are issued to staff. This includes physical assets such as cars and computers, entitlements such as club memberships and discounted canteen rates, and access to internal and third-party computer systems. Thus when an employee leaves the company or changes job, it is easy to discover which assets should be denied, recalled, disabled or returned. All of this helps with audit compliance, of course, and also saves money. After all, why buy a new copy of Microsoft Office for an incoming employee when there are four licenses available that were previously used by staff in another department but which are now no longer required.

There's no point in continuing to pay for a Bloomberg or Reuters subscription for someone who previously worked in the investments office but has now moved sideways into a marketing role. An automated provisioning system can spot this change of role and automatically alert the person who manages the subscriptions.

When someone leaves the company, provisioning software means that all of their computer accounts can be shut down in a single action. This is especially important in the case of a dismissal, where leaving a single electronic door open can put the company at risk from the proverbial disgruntled employee. Plus, there is a clear list of tangible items available so that the employee and the employer know which items need to be returned.

Automated provisioning management systems can be especially useful where temporary staff, or those on relatively short contracts, are employed. It's convenient merely to create all-powerful network usernames of, say, temp1 to temp20 and allocate them to temporary staff as required. Such a practice is commonplace but is highly dangerous because it becomes impossible to pin down unauthorised access to a specific person.

It is also inadvisable to grant users permissions to systems that they have no need to access, even if you are confident that they'll probably never discover those systems. Even if the temps don't know about them, long-standing staff will. With an automated provisioning system, the company simply defines a set of temporary job functions and the system can then create (and just as importantly, revoke) usernames with the correct set of privileges when required.

Part 2 next week: Identity Management.

Michael Burling is European director for Thor Technologies, a supplier of identity management systems.