How Can Companies That Rely on Technology Consistently Not Pay for It?

by David Lane

I was going ask you for your take on what will be this year’s marketing trend to boost sales. We have seen things like green computing and virtualization and the ever popular security (pick your favorite subtopic – USB data slurping, laptop encryption, firewalls etc), or whether Linux is for smart people but I was talking with a couple of friends, both technical and end user and ended up shaking my head.

The topic – how can companies, that rely on technology to make money, continue to fail to spend the money necessary to keep that technology not only functional, but recoverable. The first story came from a friend in logistics. She is an end user and sent me an email along the lines of they have been playing with the servers and just lost payroll. Now she is not savvy enough to explain what lost payroll means, but the upshot was the company was going to have to call the person who set it up and get him to fix it. This person, as I understand the story, no longer is employed by the company and lives several hundred miles away.

The second story comes from a friend who has his own small business taking care of other small business IT needs. He cannot find enough quality people to cover all of his needs and he occasionally calls me when he runs into Linux issues. He was telling me about a problem he was having at one of his customers and describing the infrastructure to me and he got about half way through the tale when I asked him why he had done it that way. The upshot of the story was that the company would not pay for a more robust solution, despite the fact that there were several single points of failure and certainly considerable risk points.

As someone who works in an enterprise environment as well as someone who has worked in small associations and small business, this is hardly a new trend, but as the economy begins to slough off jobs and spending becomes even more restrictive, companies will continue to cut essential services, further risking their IT infrastructure. This is not a new situation. IT is always the ugly duckling at the show. At best, when everything is working, no one sees us and the bean counters wonder why they are paying us. At worst, it is mass chaos and the bean counters wonder why they are paying us.

So what to do? One of the best things is to collect and keep current metrics that show dollars per cycle (feel free to define a cycle). For example, a common metric is the amount of money the company will lose if the database is down per minute, or production losses per minute of outage. Some of these numbers are pretty easy to obtain but others are not and require some creative accounting and a lot of schmoozing with the HR and financial folks that do not always like talking about things like gross salary or operating costs. Another, more subjective area is morale. When IT systems are running correctly, people do not see it and are focused on other things. When they are not running well, people are tense. For example, when I took over at a company several years ago, the network had a terrible reputation, crashing on a regular basis, almost like clockwork. This resulted in a lot of tension and excessive spending on supplemental equipment at the department level just to be able to get the job done. It took a while to beat the network into shape but once it was humming, people were more concerned about other things and actually smiled at the IT folks. Finally, there are several risk factors that can be documented. For example, every dollar that is cut in backup solutions results in a measurable time to restore in the event of failure. This is not always catastrophic failure. This could be as simple as the CEO’s assistant deleting a key memo to the shareholders (or the equity company more likely). If it cannot be retrieved, then the assistant’s time has been wasted. That has both a dollar value and a risk attached to it. You can discuss security issues. The case of the missing payroll is a big red flag to me on a number of levels, least of which is letting a former employee back into the systems, as benign as it might be.

Companies have a love/hate relationship with their IT organization. As IT people, we need to be more proactive in showing value, both to make sure we can afford to do the job expected of us, and to ensure we can properly describe the risks of cutting the costs in a language that those in charge of the purse strings will understand.

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