Bureau of Missing Socks

History of the Bureau
I ran across this article on the “Bureau of Missing Socks” when running a Google search on “Stock Keeping Units”. So what does missing socks have to do with SKUs you ask, well the link for my search was that the person responsible for this bureau was experienced in “stock keeping, purchasing and accounting”. Read on to see more parallels.

In short, during the US Civil War, the war department was wondering what to do with a commissioned officer named Joseph Smithson who had purchased his commission, and wasn’t too bright as a field officer but was experienced in supply, so he was assigned to the “footwear division, Army of the Potomac, supply” where one of the first tasks he was confronted with was the problem of socks for the army.

He quickly found that the army always ordered the socks in pairs (because the manufacturers wanted to sell them this way), yet most soldiers would report just one sock missing. To counteract the war profiteers, Major Smithson tried to implement General Order 48906S which required that each soldier turn in a full pair of socks before receiving a new one and to document all those missing.
Well as you can well expect, this order was not too well received by the field, even though Major Smithson was sure the missing socks were actually a Confederate conspiracy. What he was able to do in lieu of the unsuccessful order was to have darning kits issued to soldiers. But the story doesn’t end there.

What does missing socks have to do with software asset management (SAM)?
So what does the Bureau of Missing Socks have to do with software asset management you ask? Well first off, I just thought this was a good story to tell (though I can’t validate how much is truth and how much is myth). But upon further examination, you can find several parallels with problems facing Major Smithson and his missing socks, and the present day Software Asset Manager in trying to keep track of software.

While we purchase a piece of software as one package, that package often times comes in the form of multiple installs, such as the case with a server-side piece and the client side piece, just as a pair of socks comes with a sock for the left foot and one for the right. The difficulty comes in trying to track which server-side piece is connected to which client-side piece for software licensing purposes.

You need to make sure you have the capability and the processes in place to identify the clients and servers for a particular license like this, then the capabilities in the tool to enter and track those servers and clients, and directly associate them with the software license.

Another parallel is found in the problem Major Smithson found in tracking the missing socks. When software goes missing, do you have adequate mechanisms in place to:

  • Notify you when a sock (I mean software) is missing
  • Provide a method to track down the missing software, or to
  • Provide a mechanism to identify the missing software as no longer installed and to recapture the license for the missing software

A third parallel is in the effort by Major Smithson to issue an order for all soldiers to turn in their pair of socks for a replacement pair. Often times as Software Asset Managers, we think it would be a simple matter to implement some new process to help us track our software, such as a process for every user of the software to enter when they install, uninstall or move software from machine to machine. This would make our life so much easier. As such we sometimes try to implement processes and procedures that make sense on the surface to us, but in the final tally turn out to be way too burdensome for the value they return.

We need to make sure when we begin to define processes to manage the lifecycle of our software assets that we implement common sense processes that are easy to follow, and that indeed return much more value than the effort required to maintain the process.

One last lesson from the Bureau of Missing Socks
When the US began demobilizing units after the civil war, the unit responsible for missing socks was overlooked. When some corrupt officials stumbled across this they saw a great opportunity, and quickly converted this to a civil arm of the government. They increased its staff to over a thousand and increased its budget over a thousand fold. It became the sole purchasing agency for socks for all uniformed services. There were some benefits I guess, in fact, each recruit in the Spanish American War was issued twelve pairs of socks.

One result of the wholesale corruption was that once discovered, they found they had enough socks already purchased to supply the armies for both World War 1 and 2. But once they began to disperse the socks in World War 1, they found the socks purchased were designed for adults from a previous generation, and that many were simply too small.

The lessons for SAM here:

  • First and foremost, make sure you can track all of the software you have purchased
  • Secondly, make sure you can track what’s actually in use, and what’s in storage
  • Third, make sure before you purchase any additional software that you have some method to check to make sure you don’t have some extra in storage somewhere
  • Fourth, when you check the software you have in storage; make sure it fits your current user. Is it the correct version, and does it works on the operating system for that user?
  • And finally, don’t let a simple project bloat to an overgrown system of bureaucracies and waste. If we can learn lessons from history, we would be much better off, even if the lessons come from an obscure source such as the “Bureau of Missing Socks”.

The world is moving beyond traditional software asset management to Software License Optimization that delivers continuous compliance, maximized value and optimized usage of your software assets.  But, mastering these fundamentals of traditional software asset management is a prerequisite to getting to the next generation of SAM functionality that Software License Optimization delivers.

Categories: General, Software license optimization

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