I was in a meeting with a large group of CIOs the other day and the buzz in the room centered around budgets cuts. The words bunker mentality, hunker down and no new projects swirled about, seemingly on everyone’s tongue – and I can’t blame them. Things are looking pretty grim in our neck of the woods when it comes to funding and the outlook is bleak. This obviously can lead to pessimism, but what I was hearing in the room was less pessimism than it was reality.

It was clear to everyone in the room that day that the next one to two fiscal years were going to be all about staying afloat and being able to provide necessary services and only necessary services. However, I must caution that hunkering down too much and sucking it up like good IT professionals will lead to worse consequences. I have to say that the phrase of the day for these times needs to be “when the times get tough, the tough start squeaking.” I say this because even in the worst of times, the squeaky wheel continues to somehow get oiled while the wheel that struggles in silence gets more taken away from it.

I know this for a fact because I’m usually the wheel that gets its oil taken from it. Why? Well, for one, there is the general consensus that IT is like a utility – no one hears a peep out of you if things are running smoothly. Second, there is the idea that IT is an expense, not a revenue producer. Third, I am generally a good team player and will take one for the team.

Already my management has come to the IT well in my organization not one but three times looking for liquidity. Folks, I am officially saying that my IT well has run dry and from this day forward any more blood from this turnip will cause me to offer up for sacrifice services that people deem essential but actually aren’t. For example – Blackberry services. What kind of noise do you think people will make when they find out that they can’t use their Blackberry? I ask you – is having a Blackberry truly essential for anyone? People might like to think so, but in most cases it’s just a value-add – people work better because of it. Sounds like much of everything else we do, doesn’t it?

While the paragraph above might sound a little more negative than I intended, my point is that people forget that IT is mainly about productivity. We’re like those old 3M commercials that used to point out “We don’t make the things you buy. We make the things you buy better.” In the case of IT, the saying should be “We don’t do your work for you – we make the work you do better.” Better in this case means faster,  increased quantity, easier, or sometimes non-existent – thus freeing you up to do other things.

I don’t think anyone will argue the point above. The problem comes when we try to quantify how much better we do make things. One of the CIOs in the meeting I attended states that he likes to point out that every dollar spent on IT is like getting 1X dollars in return and thus every dollar you cut from IT is like cutting 1X from the organization. This idea flows well with the idea that IT is, in fact, a force multiplier but what happens when someone asks you what X is? I understand it’s all about metrics and we should have that answer right at hand – but tell me, how much productivity is that Blackberry adding to your organization? It’s easy to say that it certainly does add to one’s productivity, but how much?

Thus our quandary – much of our multiplying force is intangible or difficult to quantify or hard to collect metrics on. Thus it makes it difficult for us to defend ourselves in lean times. Therefore, when things start to get tough, we should consider offering up first those things that might cause a howl in the organization. It also means, at least for me, that I need to do a better job on the metrics that count. I’m not talking about uptime or how quickly a trouble ticket is resolved. I’m talking about the metrics that have meat in a budget hearing.

For example, I once worked as CIO for a large city/county. One of my favorite directors was the head of Emergency Medical Services (EMS). I would love to watch him during budget hearings for he was truly a master. When confronted by a Commissioner who would ask if an X percent budget cut would impact his operations he would calmly reply “No problem sir/madam, an x percent budget cut would reduce the number of emergency vehicles we can field and thus increase response time per emergency situation by x minutes. Which district would you like people to start dying first in Commissioner?” This worked every time.

As IT management professionals, we need to be able to determine our impact on the services that others provide. These are the kinds of metrics we need to be collecting because these are the ones that help determine what gets cut and by how much. When it comes to budgets cuts, you’re in competition with the other units in your organization and no one is going to remember the fantastic return on investment you made in that large project two years ago. You need to be able to demonstrate your value today.

Lean budget times exacerbate the need for IT to be able to present metrics that show its value to the organization. Traditional forms of metrics that are used to justify projects will fail you when it comes to defending yourself against the rest of the organization – you need to be able to show your value through the work of others. Only by doing that will you avoid being the department that can be cut without hurting the rest of the organization or its customers.