Emerging Tech

Can IT really focus on business-facing initiatives?

Scott Lowe addresses some reservations with the automation of certain IT functions.

A few weeks ago, I wrote two articles (first article, second article) and between the two, I outlined ten tasks that I believe should be discontinued, outsourced or automated. While it's certainly easy to say that what is a cornerstone operation such as identity management should be automated, I fully understand the technical and cultural challenges inherent in such initiatives. For others, the size of the company may determine whether or not the initiative even makes sense. Obviously, if you're a three person company, automating account provisioning would be a pointless exercise in finding ways to waste money.

However, as I reviewed the comments, I noticed a few items that stuck out and wanted to take some time to follow up with some thoughts.

The real world

One comment indicated that the items on the list aren't how IT is done in "the real world" with a particular emphasis on smaller shops as being more difficult places in which to implement such initiatives. Coming from a strong SMB background, I certainly understand the unique challenges faced by IT departments in this space. Whereas larger organizations have larger staffs with more compartmentalized functions, IT staff members in smaller shops need to wear many more hats and be more generalized.

I think this gives SMB's an edge when it comes to checking off some of these items and makes it even easier to eventually streamline IT's activities so that the group can focus more on bottom line-enhancing activities rather than just keeping the lights on.

In the real world, IT shops need to drive business value. An inability or unwillingness to address internal shortcomings or inefficiencies will result in someone at some point starting to ask questions about why IT isn't delivering this value. CIOs and IT staff members need to rethink ideas of the real work around what the world should look like and move toward that goal.

Don't lock yourself into outdated notions of what things looked like yesterday.

Self-preservation

The economy has been a bear and organizations have made major cuts across their lines, including in their IT departments. With the recovery being slow, companies aren't hiring yet and some are still shedding positions, so the fact that some staffers have moved into a self-preservation mode is completely understandable.

But it doesn't help the organization. Sure, the basic work gets done and someone takes home a paycheck, but what if you could redirect those energies into initiatives that helped the organization out of the slump?

Unfortunately, many organizations and many managers have forever damaged relationships with their employees, so there is often difficulty in extending the kind of trust that it would take for an employee to go out on a limb in the name of making things better. And, today, with the difficulty people are having finding new jobs when one is lost, people are more risk-adverse than ever.

So, start small. Do something that might not have major visibility at first but that could save you some time and quietly seek out projects that might have business benefit.

Another poster mentioned that restrictive union rules prevented him from doing anything outside his box. In these cases, unless there is a willingness to renegotiate work duties, I'm not sure what to advise. If you've been in this situation before, how have you handled it?

But we're rural

For some suggestions, you need to engage an outsider. For example, if you decide to outsource management of your printers, you're going to need a vendor that can provide the services. In some areas, this will certainly be an issue and you won't be able to get the services you need at a cost that makes sense.

That's just geography for you.

But, before you simply assume you're too rural, check it out. There are a lot of vendors out there. And, yes, they're making money. That was another comment that was raised. They make money due to the volume deals that they can leverage that an individual organization simply can't match.

At a previous job, I thought we were doing great with printing costs. We used inexpensive recycled toner and fixed printers internally as much as possible. I was very skeptical of managed printing services. Would they really save us money? Would it really be better than going it alone? I was also skeptical because we were looking at vendors located in cities 20 and 30 miles away from our rural town and was concerned about response time.

The answer to both questions was a resounding yes. We saved thousands of dollars per year and printers worked better overall.

Don't give a kneejerk reaction

I realize that many people have vested interests in the activities that I outlined in my previous two articles. However, before making assumptions that something will or won't work, kick it around, pilot something... just try. Help transform your IT department from what CFOs might look at as a cost center into a business enabler.

So, what keeps your IT group from being able to refocus? Is there any possibility that you'll be able to stop doing some of the suggested tasks?

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

7 comments
viProCon
viProCon

You guys make some really good points. I guess those cost of downtime calculations would be handy in situations where leadership wants to know what IT is there for. Well, through the proces of justifying one's own purpose, one can further come to understand themsevles during the process, nothing wrong with that I suppose.

tom4587
tom4587

The critics seem to sort themselves into two categories, centered around complaints I’ll summarize as, “Anyone who knows Operations would have done these obvious things years ago”, and, “You don’t get how recommendation N doesn’t apply to us, because our organization is large/small/spread out/concentrated/???” If it’s obvious, folks, it won’t take long to read through his ideas, make sure you’ve implemented all you can of them, congratulate yourselves, and move on. If it turns out you’re missing any of these, they deserve your attention. http://www.real-user-monitoring.com/a-day-in-the-it-life-saying-the-obvious/

viProCon
viProCon

I agree that it seems necessary these days for IT to put on a PR campaign of sorts to show people why it exists, what its value is, etc. I happen to detest this. Why should IT have to? On a cynical note, maybe IT should just stop coming to work for two weeks and then the company can really learn how necessary IT is. Does the marketing dept. have to justify why it markets? (Maybe they do, I don't know). For them, it is well understood that their efforts in theory will result in sales. Yet for IT, it's more complicated. In most cases you are lukcy if your IT dept. can keep everything running smoothly and IMHO, there should be a re-focusing on that fact. Leadership needs to appreciate what is has, before asking for more. Non-IT people in leadership positions want to "drive more value" etc. from their existing teams. "Well hey, we've got sales working 60 hour workweeks, let's see what we can get iT to do?". Problem is, IT already puts in more time after-hours than anybody. Slowly, IT is becoming the slave class within organizations, even though IT has the power to make or break the success of a company. It's ironic. In any case, it would be really nice for the world to be full of leaders who have half a clue. There's nothing I respect more than a leader who has taken the time in his/her career to at least moderately understand technology. What i can't stand are those idiots who run companies that can't even understand why having their password on a laptop is necessary. Sorry for the strong language but these people are exactly that, idiots, and I feel sorry for the people who have to put up with them as leaders. Leaders have a responsibility to have some basic idea of how tech works as much as they should know say, the basics of economics. If you want to drive real competitive advantage, get a CEO who understands tech to some degree and you'll be miles ahead of clueless CEO's trying to "drive more value" out of their IT dept. and expect them to justify themselves. PS: I am not in an IT dept but I feel strongly about this trend enough to say my piece, whether I be in the wrong or not. Edited: removed some additional cynical text. Also added one smiley to lighten the mood. :)

ittechexec
ittechexec

Absolutely agree, Scott. Business value and enablement is the core of what IT does (or should do). If the activities IT is performing don't add value to the business, they shouldn't be doing them. If the business doesn't understand how valuable it is, then IT has a PR problem. And, yes, that is a concern for many IT organizations at small and large companies.

info
info

I used to think along those same lines. Then I woke up. Sure, I'm a pretty smart guy, and a lot of people think of me as an 'IT God'... The leaders of our company pretty much need me to hand-hold them through reading their Email every morning. Total idiots, right? Well, they are millionaires, and I'm NOT. So I figure they must be doing something and know things that I don't. When you're that successful in business, you shouldn't HAVE to know arcane ways to juggle your contacts in Outlook. You have people to do that for you, or you buy a better software. By the way, isn't this where things are going? You have to remember that while we have technical and logic-oriented minds, the majority of people don't. We can make applications dance, but the goal is to let the majority of people get their stuff done with a minimum of technical skill or knowledge. As for IT 'proving' it exists, it's a business, and 'human', mind-set thing. Business-wise, the thinking is that if something's not making money, find a way to get rid of it, or outsource it. We know that the 'reality' of that is much different. I run my printers and manage my servers in such a way that I save TONS of money over external management and 'cloud' services. But my boss just bought into printer management (at a HUGE extra cost, could the article writer extrapolate on WHY he thinks they save thousands of dollars?) and he's willing to spend money to get me out of the server room and get me working more with our various departments on business and software initiatives. Even if they're 'wrong', they're mostly in charge, and we can't fight them. (Start your own company if you think differently.) Human-wise, computers (as people think of IT) are something that, like TV, electricity and running water, just 'work'. They tend to take things like that for granted, until something fails. You must have heard the stories of the effective IT departments that run places so well they have no disruptions or down-time. The business heads wonder where all their money is going, so they make massive cuts to those IT departments since they don't see any tangible returns. Then, when recovery from a sudden failure is measured in days instead of hours, they demand to know why... It'd not idiocy. It's humanity. I saw a quote from one of the American 'founding fathers' who decried the fact that stupidity appeared to be celebrated in the colonies...

the_tech_mule
the_tech_mule

In your post, you ask if the marketing department has to justify why they market? No, but they do have to show results. They have to present reports and presentations to leadership that they are marketing and that they are successful. If they fail to do so, they are failing as a department and should be replaced. I agree that leadership should have at least least a basic understanding of what the IT department does. To me, it's the responsibility of the IT department to make that information available in a way that business minded people can understand. We have to meet the business-side at least half-way. We cannot expect them to ask for knowledge and details they likely wouldn't even know exists. Too many businesses treat IT like an arcane science that they can't possibly understand. Too many IT departments encourage that way of thinking. As businesses hear of ways to solve the "IT problem," it's so often the lack of communication between IT and leadership that's the fundamental issue. IT needs to get better at showing its value to leadership. If it doesn't do that, then leadership will assume that it doesn't provide value and will look at ways to reduce it as a cost center.

viProCon
viProCon

Despite my previous post (or next post, depending on how this thread displays posts) I do agreed that if it is clear that something IT is involved in is not doing anything for the comapny, by all means take a look at it and evaluate how to improve it. But the problem is you have many leaders who are really followers. They read IT Manager Daily or some other management-oriented publication and see that successful companies are "driving value" through internal IT so they want to do it too, even though in some cases your business model is better suited that IT simply maintain operations while other teams drive growth . Sometimes even collaborate with IT on such projects but not where you expect the CIO to sit there sweating because he/she can't figure out how to "add value".

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