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Decision Support: Communication tactics for tech budget approval

Explains the budget process for the network administrator whos not financially savvy

By Ruby Bayan

Tech-speak will always be Greek to the layman. If only you could speak exclusively with other IT pros—fluent and articulate in your digital dialogues—all would be well. Unfortunately, if you're part of a corporate IT support and network administration staff, your job description includes the ability to communicate effectively with nontechnical staff and management, some of whom are your budget managers and executive officers.

At one time or another, you may be asked to prepare a full-blown study and/or financial plan for a high-end IT project. Not only does that mean you have to break out of your usual role as technical problem-solver, but you’re also faced with the formidable task to "speak English" to win your nontechnical decision-makers' collective nod.

When caught in this dilemma, the following tactics may help you speak your bosses' language to get your IT project and budget proposal approved.

Highlight the bottom line
We asked three veteran IT professionals what specific strategies they would recommend to a tech who needs to build a compelling nontechnical project proposal and budget plan. They offered various methods but agreed on the primary focus: the bottom line.

"The most important issue is clearly cost justification," said Scott Diamond, freelance IT consultant and proprietor of Diamond Computing Associates. "If you can show management that your project will save x millions of dollars, you rarely have to do anything more." As long as you can show that the project will either save the organization money or earn money for it, it's a shoo-in, he said.

"Your executive summary should spotlight your bottom line," said Ariel Giron, UNIX specialist at David Jones Ltd. "It should underscore the project cost along with the benefits to the company—in concise terms."

Keith Pasley, CISSP, security practice manager of Dimension Data North America, said an IT professional seeking project approval "will need to include return on investment (ROI) data, total cost of ownership (TCO), and data showing either how the project will increase revenue or reduce costs, preferably both."

Back your numbers with concepts familiar to executive management
Above-industry-average ROIs may be enough to satisfy the officers who hold the corporate purse strings, but if you’re anticipating requests for supporting arguments, Pasley suggested incorporating business sense in your project proposal.

A licensed systems security pro, Pasley used a security project as an example. "Many businesses have seen an increase in spending for IT; however, the percentage spent on security seems to remain flat. Because security is seen as a cost, getting needed budget allocations takes some skill."

He recommended these approaches to prop up your justification:
  • Get third-party figures. If you can get a security assessment done, use data from it that shows where the vulnerabilities are and what the impact to the business will be in hard dollars to use as supporting, yet independent documentation.
  • Use industry-created lists. SANS Institute has developed a list of management errors that contribute to security breaches. Open Web Application Security Project has posted a list of top 10 Web application vulnerabilities.
  • Build a business case. Show that security supports the business plan and that it is aligned with the business financial goals (to either reduce cost or increase revenue). This raises the stature of the security project from a technical project to a business project. It is a good idea to seek out line-of-business stakeholders as sponsors of the project, as well as others in the organization who will gain from it.

"The idea here is to provide concrete statements that can be backed up by relevant quantitative data," Pasley said.

Harness subjective justifications
"The problem occurs when you can't produce hard and fast numbers that prove cost effectiveness," said Diamond, who freelances as an in-house IT consultant for an insurance firm. "You then need to rely on more subjective means to justify the project," he said. He provided the following specific examples:
  • Productivity gains are a favorite issue. For example, an upgrade from 10-Mbps hubs to 100-Mbps switches will increase effective bandwidth, allowing workers to do more. If users are frequently staring at hourglasses, this can be a compelling argument.
  • Insurance is one of the arguments I would use to present justifications for projects such as a mirror site. Ask the managers if they have a business insurance policy. Then ask them to assess its worth. Then ask what they would lose if they were out of business for one day, one week, or one month. Show estimates of the cost and downtimes that might occur in case of a disaster. Show how quickly the company can be back up and running by employing the mirror site.

Present a professional proposal
Giron, who worked as a technical lead for a systems development firm for more than a decade, recalled his proposal-writing days.

"Nothing beats research to establish the feasibility of a concept. But at the end of the day, your research is only as good as the documentation you produce," he said.

He suggested several ways to make a technical proposal comprehensible to nontechnical decision-makers:
  • Get your numbers straight. Use detailed spreadsheets and one-page summaries to show costs, budgets, market projections, and all pertinent research figures.
  • Use graphics only if appropriate. If it helps to drive a point, use charts or graphs that your decision-makers can understand at first glance. A picture paints a thousand words, but if it's not worth that much, it's probably not worth putting in. Never use "cute" graphics in your document. You may get away with them in a PowerPoint presentation, but there's no place for cuteness in a project proposal.
  • Research, write, rewrite. Bosses appreciate well-written, logically organized, well-referenced, and heavily researched documentation—material that answers all their questions and concerns and helps them make informed decisions. So research, and research some more; then write, rewrite, and rewrite some more—in "English.”

More help for first-time proposal writers
If you’re worried about your proposal-writing skills, try taking the free online tutorials available from Resource Management Systems' IT Investment, IT Budgeting and IT Performance Management—Online Resource. One of its guides, “Get Your IT Project Funded—5 Steps to Improve the Odds,” offers step-by-step instructions for preparing a project budget justification. It walks you through the process of identifying and understanding your audience, outlining the key points, adding the necessary details, and assembling them coherently. It also explains the issues you'll want to remember as you write and review your project justification. TechRepublic provided an overview of the site’s other budgeting tutorials in a previous article.
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