What Is User Management? Best Practice Guide for Admins

User management is the foundation of a secure and productive IT environment and one of the core responsibilities of sysadmins and helpdesk staff. By providing employees with the right accounts and permissions, effective user management enables seamless access to digital resources while protecting sensitive data. Learn about the steps involved in user management, different approaches to user administration and how to automate user management in Windows environments.

The term user management describes various tasks that IT professionals carry out in order to manage the digital identities of regular users. In a professional context, user management typically includes:

  • User provisioning: Account creation and setup, assigning access rights

  • Managing authentication methods: Supplying initial login data, setting up MFA, password resets

  • Ongoing adjustments: Changing permissions and account data as needed

  • Auditing users: Checking accounts for compliance, removing unnecessary accounts

  • User deprovisioning: Offboarding users, deleting accounts and revoking access

What user management looks like in practice depends on both the number of accounts that the IT staff has to manage and the number of different applications: While some organizations rely primarily on Microsoft services and a small number of external systems, other networks include a much wider range of third-party apps and cloud services that each require dedicated accounts.

Generally speaking, the more accounts and the more apps there are in an IT environment, the more difficult and time-consuming user management becomes.

How Does User Management Work?

User management is carried out by IT professionals, who manage digital identities on behalf of normal users to ensure that best practices and security policies are followed. There are three basic approaches that admins can take when it comes to user management:

  • Local user management means that admins manage accounts directly within each system, adding, servicing and deleting users on a per-app basis. Due to its repetitive nature, this approach is very time-consuming and should be avoided as much as possible.

  • Central user management removes the need to manage systems individually, either by providing a platform for managing accounts in different applications or by enabling staff to use one account across multiple systems through a central directory service, single sign-on (SSO) or federated identity solution. The centralized approach saves a lot of time, but still requires admins to manually create, audit and delete accounts.

  • Automated user management goes one step further by not only managing users through a central platform, but also automating most of the steps involved. For example, when an admin creates a new user, permission roles and entitlement packages mean they automatically receive the right accounts and permissions across different systems. Likewise, auditing and offboarding is made much easier through this automated approach and central oversight.

What Makes User Management So Important?

In a digital workplace, user management is impossible to avoid. After all, your staff needs accounts to log into their PCs, various business applications and cloud services. Plus they need permissions to access the data they work with. But while no user management isn’t an option, it’s very possible to end up with bad user management.

And bad user management can become very expensive: Every missing account and permission your staff needs to wait for delays your core business. On the other hand, overprivileged users, outdated accounts and poor authentication practices are a security nightmare, risking data breaches and cyberattacks. The dangers of poor user management are simply too great to ignore.

Last but not least, user management is also a huge time sink for your IT staff. Skilled tech workers are a valuable resource, yet many waste their time resetting passwords or performing simple account maintenance. By making user management more efficient and automating monotonous tasks, you free up your IT staff to work on more important projects like security or infrastructure upgrades.

New employee onboarding procedure shown on a company laptop.
Each new user needs the right accounts and permissions in different systems. Adobe Stock, (c) flowertiare

User Management Requirements

Broadly speaking, user management is the process of IT professionals administering digital identities on behalf of other users. But let’s break this definition down further: What are the specific goals that a user management strategy needs to accomplish? These are the core requirements of successful user management:

  • Drive policy: Account administration needs to follow security requirements such as password policies, audit trails and data retention.

  • Minimize risk: A modern approach to user management should be based around least privilege access and zero trust security to reduce the risk of account compromise and data breaches.

  • Enable compliance: Whether your organization is subject to SOX or HIPAA, requires NIST compliance or ISO 27001 certification, user management has to support compliance needs.

  • Support secure authentication: User management also governs login security and should enforce the use of multi-factor authentication and conditional access whenever possible.

  • Offer seamless access: Although there are many logistical and security concerns to be addressed, the challenges of user management should be invisible to the end user who simply wants to log in and start working.

A frictionless environment for business users does not mean compromising on security, but prioritizing solutions that can be implemented in a user-friendly way, such as app-based MFA or single sign-on platforms. In fact, prioritizing user-friendliness often improves cybersecurity outcomes because it boosts compliance with security policy. A more approachable process is more likely to be followed.

Automatic User Management in Windows: How to

There are many steps you can take to make admin life easier and automate some parts of user administration in Active Directory and Windows networks. For example:

  • AGDLP structure: The AGDLP principle is Microsoft’s recommended approach to role-based access control in Active Directory. You create global user groups that map to business roles, which are then added to domain local permission groups that each govern access to a specific resource. This way, provisioning new users is a simple matter of adding them to one group and the list of group memberships makes permission reporting a lot easier.

  • PowerShell scripts: For recurring tasks such as user provisioning or deprovisioning, you can use PowerShell scripts and automated jobs to make sure that no steps are missed. This can include steps such as disabling accounts, setting up email forwards or moving users to a closed-off domain for record keeping.

  • Group policy: Group policy objects allow you to manage many important Windows settings, including account and security settings. Which AD objects are subject to group policy is determined by the organizational unit a GPO is linked to. Consequently, a clear and logical OU structure goes a long way towards simplifying group policy management.

  • Azure AD Connect Sync: For organizations that use Azure AD (Microsoft Entra) in conjunction with an on-premise domain, Connect Sync allows you to synchronize local and cloud identities, meaning that your staff can use their Windows login to sign into Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, OneDrive and more.

  • Dynamic groups: Membership in dynamic groups is based on specific user attributes, removing the need to manually add users. When set up correctly, dynamic groups allow you to make sure that new accounts are automatically assigned to the correct groups. Please note that support for dynamic groups is limited to Azure AD and distribution groups (but not security groups) in on-prem AD.

However, the truth is that while there are piecemeal solutions that can save some time in user administration, if you want to fully automate user management in your organization, you need a dedicated identity and access management solution.

Identity and access management or IAM is a category of business software that deals with the automated administration of digital identities and privileges. With the help of IAM, you can manage user lifecycles across your entire IT with minimal effort while benefitting from increased security and compliance as well as full visibility into accounts and privileges.

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How Can IAM Help You Automate User Management?

As an admin, it can sometimes feel like there are no good options. Either you are stuck managing users by hand, or you painstakingly set up AGDLP groups and PowerShell scripts by hand. Obviously, setting up automation systems is worth it in the long run, but getting there can still be a long and laborious process.

Identity and access management takes all that work out of user management automation: IAM solutions automatically manage group structures, user provisioning/deprovisioning and account audits for you! All you need to do is establish which accounts and permissions users should receive by setting up the necessary roles for role-based access control.

Once set up, your identity and access management solution automatically creates, adjusts and deletes accounts as necessary across all connected systems. Even routine tasks like password resets can be outsourced through a self-service platform that allows data owners within various teams to handle common requests.

The best part? Even though admins are less involved in day-to-day administration, they get a better overview of accounts and permissions thanks to central permission reporting and regular access reviews.

tenfold: No-Code User Management

There are many software solutions that deal with user and permission management. The issue is that most are either too small to really solve the problem – leaving you to do most of the work – or too big, so they become an administrative disaster themselves. In particular, traditional IAM solutions are scoped for huge corporations, making them difficult to use in a mid-sized networks.

While conventional IAM tools do help you manage accounts across a variety of systems, organizations first have to integrate these different applications through custom scripts and code. This complicated process leads to expensive and yearslong setup phases, leaving admins to fend for themselves in the meantime.

By contrast, tenfold‘s no-code IAM platform is both quick to set up and easy to use, enabling admins to automate user management in record time. Thanks to out-of-the-box support for Microsoft systems and common third-party apps, tenfold can be fully set up in just four weeks. See for yourself by signing up for a free trial.

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About the Author: Joe Köller

Joe Köller is tenfold’s Content Manager and responsible for the IAM Blog, where he dives deep into topics like compliance, cybersecurity and digital identities. From security regulations to IT best practices, his goal is to make challenging subjects approachable for the average reader. Before joining tenfold, Joe covered games and digital media for many years.