Position IT support as a business function

The availability and quality of IT support can help a business grow and run smoothly. Why then, isn't it commonly considered part of strategic business planning?

Never was so much owed by so many to so few: Winston Churchill could very well have been talking about the role of IT support workers.

It’s a fact that the growing preponderance of IT-centric business processes across a wide spectrum of industries has created a growing demand for quality IT support. That being the case, you’d think that a rational business model in today’s commercial climate would include IT support as a critical business function. After all, the availability and quality of IT support has the potential to help a business operate (and grow) smoothly, and a lack of it could seriously hinder operations.

Yet I know this isn’t the case. Too many companies decide that their operations must be computerized, but then fail to pair this decision with one that demands IT support be allocated its fair share of resources and be integrated with overall business strategy. Budget planners usually accept that computers, print cartridges, network cards, and monitors will all cost X, but then leave it at that, with no more available for expansion or improvement of IT support.

However, when something within the realm of IT goes seriously wrong and affects business processes, the expectation is that the problem should have been fixed yesterday or shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I know that any IT support people reading this will nod in quiet desperation as they move onto their 13th cup of coffee—and it isn’t even 10 A.M. and they’ve forgotten the name of their firstborn.

Consider IT support in long-term planning
When you buy a car, you don’t spend twenty grand and then never expect to have to pay another cent. You know that the vehicle will need to be serviced, have parts replaced, and so on. IT is the same, only computers are a lot more fragile than cars, so they may well need a greater slice of the pie in the long run. Take it a step further: You know that your general lifestyle (when you take your vacations, how you get the kids to school) will all be highly influenced by the availability of your car and the quality of the service and support when those inevitable breakdowns occur.

The growth of a business, especially rapid growth, can compound problems with planning IT support. A company may need to move to bigger premises, hire more staff, and buy new computer hardware, but evidence suggests that IT management is rarely invited to board-level budget meetings to discuss the new burdens that will be placed on IT departments. The expense (higher rent for bigger office, more clerical/admin staff) and commotion of rapid business expansion also often means that the question of expanding IT support services to match the rest of the expansion is left by the wayside.

Make sure communication lines are open
The IT support staff is sometimes partly to blame because interdepartmental communication can be a problem. It’s no secret that IT departments are often thought of as virtual fiefdoms, where only the brave (or stupid) tread. However, the same can sometimes be said of senior management, who need to take more time to discuss IT support issues with IT staff. The net effect can be an uneasy (and unhealthy) balance where not much is said but mutual suspicion persists and frustration grows.

So, let’s get this straight: With the way businesses operate today, IT support must always be seen as a legitimate business function which demands that sufficient budgeting be allocated to it and that these costs be included in any business plan. This is only fair, given the growing expectations most businesses now place on computerization. The allocation of budgets must be discussed regularly with senior IT management staff, and the staff, in turn, must legitimize its budget requests and be held accountable. It is no longer acceptable to spend a few bucks here and there on IT support, when a vision and policy are essential.

It is also the responsibility of management to ensure that the caliber of IT support staff is high. This means allocating a portion of the budget solely to training. Regrettably, training budgets are the first to be slashed when times get tough. But IT staffs need more training than most, not only because of the complexity of the subject but because of the speed of change and the increasing reliance placed on technological savvy. A few well-trained, motivated IT staff members will save the company money.

What about smaller businesses that are without significant IT support needs but that nevertheless run computerized operations? It may be desirable to outsource all IT support needs because it’s cheaper to do so in the long term. It’s often the case that in a company with fewer than 15 to 20 employees, one or two people will have “the knowledge” in IT matters. While this is not a bad thing itself, it quite easily leads to “job creep,” where Joe ends up doing his regular job and giving IT support when the need arises.

Someone must remedy this situation because Joe will be distracted from his real function (and become more expensive to the company) and may become disillusioned through overwork, perhaps to the point of wanting to leave the company. Then, not only will a good staff member have been lost, but two posts will need to be filled. It’s much better and financially sound to find a reputable IT support company and draw up a detailed support contract from day one. Many smaller companies are doing exactly this because they realize the need to be organized, so that when IT systems fall over—and they do—they know that their support contract will minimize downtime and disruption.

Don't discount IT support's input on strategy
The overall aim of integrating IT support with the rest of a company’s business functions must be so that the IT department itself can play a greater part in business development strategy. IT support staff is usually the key technological asset in a company, so its collective expertise and knowledge can and should be leveraged when strategy is on the agenda.

Here’s why: IT workers are exposed to new and emerging technologies every day, and they're in a position to make valuable suggestions about how business processes can be made more efficient (aka cheaper) by harnessing such new technologies. Sometimes, the cost of doing so may be prohibitive and the real benefits questionable; at other times, it will make sense to listen and make those changes. At the very least, the fact that IT support staff should feel valued—over and above giving plain-vanilla IT support day in and day out—will lead to more harmonious interdepartmental relationships and a more motivated IT support body.

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