What IT Managers Really Want and How to Get It
Often, what IT managers want to do and what they need to do are two different things. Most IT managers want to align IT activities with business goals to drive profitability and sustain a competitive edge. Typically, this means affecting change through strategic and tactical IT projects rather than maintaining the company's basic operational needs. For many, the desire for more strategic contributions is never realized because they are forced to spend their time fighting fires. To make matters worse, studies suggest that CEOs share the frustration that their IT management is not spending more time (at least 60 percent) on strategic issues. 1
How can your IT organization transition from a support role into a transformation agent? What activities and strategies can move your IT group from a corporate cost component into a value-added asset that drives executive-sponsored initiatives? Here are a few ideas.
Operational Leverage: Getting Your House in Order
Supposedly, Socrates once said, "He who would move the world must first move himself." If end users consistently complain about the lack of basic file sharing, printing and e-mail services, your group will never get the organizational credibility to tackle high profile projects. Most likely, your IT services are viewed much like you perceive your own electrical service. It's only when you flip the wall switch and the lights don't come on that you think about your local electric utility. When was the last time you wrote a thank you note to them when the lights came on just as you expected? Similarly, basic IT services are bundled with certain expectations about availability and performance. An IT group must succeed at providing these operational level services before moving on to more visible and complex strategic projects.
Before graduating to strategic responsibilities, your group will first need to discover and implement strategies that give your existing resources more time to be proactive. Don't expect executive management to dole out a higher headcount or a bigger budget to help you. Instead, focus on realigning the resources you already have to realize greater operational efficiency.
If you are already feeling strapped for resources and don't have time to be proactive, what can you do? Consider rethinking your current objectives and processes and be bold enough to change them if need be. Remember the old adage, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten."
First steps include comparing your existing methodologies against Gartner best practices and other proven standards or models. The goal of this first phase is simply to make sure that your processes efficiently address your IT group's core objective to provide highly reliable operational services that are transparent to the end user. What 20 percent of your tasks are consuming 80 percent of your resources and how could those key existing processes be further streamlined?
A key component for improving operational efficiency is leverage - never do for the one what you can do for the many. Use your existing budget to experiment with and implement next generation management tools that will extend the reach of your existing resources. Instead of deploying a technician to roll out a new operating system one machine at a time, imagine pushing out that operating system to 500 machines from a central console with a single drag and drop event. Think of the time savings that could generate and how your group might use that time proactively.
Figure 1: IT Project Hierarchy
Very often, the right management tools can offer extremely high operational efficiencies and also provide that extra time to pursue proactive projects or roll out entirely new services. Even reactive tasks such as warding off virus attacks or redirecting print jobs away from a failed printer will consume fewer resources because policies can automate system responses. Real-time monitoring, policy-based management and centralized, Web-based control are features that will more quickly and effectively deliver your resources to IT problem areas.
What's the best investment for your budget dollar? Hiring another technician or investing in management tools that can do the work of 10 technicians? Console-based imaging and software delivery, automated inventory collection, application metering and automatic client backup are just a few of the new solutions available to IT organizations that really can deliver on the challenge to do more with less.
When industry best practices are automated by next generation management tools, the resulting operational efficiencies are dramatically compounded. For many organizations, it's the difference that makes the difference.
Positioning with Tactical Wins
Even after many consecutive months of operational stability, users still probably won't realize all the effort your IT group has expended to create the new service levels they enjoy. At this point, it's still not time to march into the CEO's office and begin discussing strategic possibilities. Instead, pick a well-defined tactical project that will provide incremental value and some marginal visibility. For example, if your company hasn't already done so, consider rolling out wireless network access. It's a low cost, low resource project that leverages all the recent operational improvements you've been making. This kind of project positions the IT group as an innovator and your users will love the flexibility it provides them.
Other tactical projects may include a long overdue operating system migration or the roll out of a new productivity application such as Microsoft VISIO. Tactical projects offer a slight visibility to end users and must be recognized as providing some added value to the organization. These kinds of projects begin to openly substantiate your IT organization as efficient, professional and capable of getting the job done. It is critical that these tactical projects do not compromise existing operational efficiencies in any way. Only by winning at both operational and tactical levels will your IT group become a candidate for strategic projects.
Before moving on to strategy, a great last project for the tactical phase is implementing Web-based reporting of IT metrics for executives. Many of today's management tools offer very professional looking, graphics-based reports than can provide executive management with real-time access to IT wins. Once operational successes become a regular occurrence, it's important to widely and regularly report them. The renowned marketing pundit, Ted Levitt, once commented that reporting is significant because an executive will, "only know when he's not getting what he bought, and that's all that's likely to count unless, in the interval, he's been made so regularly and persuasively aware of what he's been getting all along that occasional failures fade in relative importance."2
Marketing the IT group's capabilities is a critical component for repositioning senior management's perception of your IT role. By reporting on tactical and operational wins, upper management expectations are conditioned to view IT as a reliable mechanism for transforming and sustaining company objectives.
Lastly, the metrics you choose to report must be carefully selected to emphasize IT's strategic value, not merely its operational merit. Wherever possible, report in terms of growing sales, strengthening cash flow and improving product quality. Migrating 500 machines from Windows 98 to Windows XP overnight is impressive but how did it increase shareholder value? Take the time to find out and then report in terms of those findings.
After months of sustained operational reliability and reporting strategically oriented metrics to upper management, your IT group will be well positioned to propose a highly visible strategic project (assuming management hasn't already proposed one for you). The vice president of sales and the vice president of manufacturing are great sources to cultivate both for project ideas and for support. Strategic projects may include an e-commerce portal, a CRM system, EDI or a variety of other high value, highly visible ventures.
Maintain a close watch on operational efficiencies so they don't erode in the wake of new and more challenging strategic wins. Gartner reports that 80 percent of the cost of a PC is generated by servicing and supporting it. The purchase price amounts to only 20 percent of its overall cost. 3 This suggests that a $2,000 PC can cost an additional $8,000 to manage and support. IT organizations must develop significant efficiencies to keep operational costs low so that they do not kill strategic endeavors. Additionally, remember that strategic technologies will often overlay basic network services. The effort you expend to build the integrity of your infrastructure's operational layer will pay big dividends well into tactical and strategic initiatives.
In conclusion, successful IT organizations win on all three levels - operationally, tactically and strategically. Operational stability must come first because the extra weight of strategic and tactical projects on an already stressed operational effort will often end in disastrous results for all IT projects. IT groups struggling for operational wins should consider combining best practices with new management tools to better leverage existing resources. The resulting IT infrastructure will become a dependable foundation that executive management will recognize as a key transformation agent in the company's evolution.
1. Delisi, Peter S. "A CEO's-eye view of the IT function." Business Horizons. Greenwich, Jan/Feb 1998 Volume 41, Issue 1.
2. Levitt, T. The Marketing Imagination. New York, New York. Free Press. 1986.
3. Gartner, Inc. "IT Life Cycle Management and Windows 2000 Migration Engagement." #220051540-20 April 2001.
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Todd Mitchell is a technical marketing manager at Altiris, Inc. An MCSE/MCT, he has ten years of experience in the IT industry as both an independent networking consultant and product manager for various enterprise-level applications. Mitchell has worked extensively with both corporate networks and wireless utility network infrastructures.
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