Are You Asking Questions?

October 7, 2010

A nice article titled; The electronic health record meets the iPad from IT World Canada.

The articles demonstrates how Mr. Dale Potter, chief information officer at the Ottawa Hospital improved IT services at the hospital exponentially.

There is one key quotation that I want to point out regarding Mr. Potter’s work;

….. asked physicians how much of the information they needed in their work was available …

Look at the very first word in that quotation.

Asked

Asking questions.

How often does your IT Leadership actually do that? Or do they try to be prescriptive without asking those questions first?

The SMB Takeaway

Ask questions and then truly listen. Only then can you begin thinking of solutions or alternatives. It won’t always be easy.

Ask Questions

Photo Credit Leo Reynolds via flickr

This is the second post in this series for getting a handle on IT spending by doing a complete zero based IT budget. Again, the target for this post  is CFO’s (or other SME executives) managing IT where they have lost visibility of IT spend,  and also IT staff just promoted to that first IT Manager position.

In the first post, I started off with many of the details you need to collect that will allow you to determine what you actually spent (both CAPEX and OPEX) last year. (If you are  newly promoted IT staff, yes there is a reason why we want to start in the past!)

This second post will finish off the details needed to get a reasonably accurate description of your actual IT spend for the previous fiscal year.

So, in addition to the details you collected from part 1, document and include the following;

  • IT salaries, fully loaded. If you are a new IT Manager and don’t have the exact salaries and load rates,  get a fully loaded summary from your finance team.
  • Telecommunications. Your business may choose not to include telecommunications costs under the IT umbrella, but I will recommend that most SME’s should consider it. Simply because most SME’s don’t have dedicated telecom charts of accounts either.

Now, with the details you have been collecting from the previous post, plus these new ones, ensure that there is a breakdown of these costs. A cost basket of  Services is unacceptable. A heading of Services with a breakdown of what is the level of detail that we are looking for.

At this point you will have a spreadsheet breaking down;

  • Recurring fees (hardware, software or services)
  • Non-recurring fees (hardware, software etc)
  • Consulting / services / support / training
  • Hardware / Parts
  • etc

If you are a CFO responsible for IT, like many SME executives, you will now be going good god!!! We spend WHAT!!!??

You will also have shortness of breath, dizziness, and an increasing sense of panic. Clear signs of a coronary.

My recommendation is that you hit the gym for an hour, or have a few stiff drinks at lunch, and then revisit.

Feeling better?

We have not reached the forecast for the next fiscal yet, but if we look closely – there is a wealth of information in this summary of your previous years actuals.

  1. Look at the services. Still need them all? Anything there that has not been used in years? Anything that has become such a low value add that you can look at replacing?
  2. Recurring fees – especially software – many of us have been forced to cut staff in this recession. Are you paying fees for more staff than you now have?
  3. Look closely at those ‘miscellaneous’ parts and supplies. If those are hitting the the dollar value of a FTE, you have structural problems, either through your purchasing process,  or in your TCO (total cost of ownership) planning
  4. Non-recurring fees, hardware or software. There may be circumstances where 100% of your staff need that expensive software. But perhaps 20% need it while the rest just think it is a nice to have. As an example, you create PDF files? Adobe Acrobat Standard version does 90% of what the Professional version does, yet is almost half the price.

Next post in this series will start to dive into the forecast part of this first zero based budget!

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When IT Abuses Trust

April 23, 2010

IT Theft

You follow every good practice in the book to ensure that your data is secure from prying eyes and security threats.

Then you find out the prying eyes are your IT staff.

Here is another incident reported by Mike Schaffner in this post titled; Keeping Data Safe From IT Snoops

Let me be clear: It is theft. And I am sure it happens more often than we realize.

Larger SME’s, you must play with the big kids on this one. Create, implement, monitor and audit your network and physical security policies.

For smaller organizations it can be harder due to lack of resources. But it is not impossible.

Along with some of the tips in the above article, I have some more in this post titled: IT And Ethics

Photo Credit  Kiwi-Lomo via flickr

Too many business technology staff have a disease. Maybe you have seen it?

This shoot first and ask questions later is only a significant symptom, but let me back up first.

All business has a value chain. This value chain is the set of activities in your organization that produce the product or service that is actually delivered to your customers.

If you prefer to think in the concept of Open Systems, we can state that your business does not operate in a vacuum. Inputs, manipulation and outputs are required to physically get your product or service delivered.

And in many businesses, there is one common link that can help tie together each of those inputs and outputs;

Technology

Technology support in your business is not just data entry. In many cases creative knowledge workers can utilize technology based processes to reduce the friction that slows communication between the pieces of your value chain. By reducing friction, I mean reducing the gaps and time lost between individual steps.

As an example? a graphic artist creates material that has to go to print, but the individual that has to give the final approval forgets, so while the work is done, it is stuck in a crack, or gap of your internal value chain. These gaps are the common area where your IT can help streamline your internal processes.

That Technology Value Chain

I am going to break a rule here and temporarily extract your IT function out of your business – just like a schematic diagram.

If you could view your IT service in this way, you would see all the points where your IT  touches and connects to the various business processes you operate.

So let me argue that IT is a type of internal value chain for your organization – any change to those touch points that connect other points  will affect others. It will affect them through change, or it will affect them when they can’t get their job done because something is not working.

This Chain?

Technologists in the SME space must understand that IT does not exist in a vacuum. Nothing is discrete, you cannot just separate it like this simple schematic.

Everything that is done will positively or negatively impact the daily life and performance of somebody else. (And usually many someone else’s.)

And that is the problem

This shoot first,ask questions later in SME IT is a disease. Too many technologists never think of the impact that their decisions will have on others.

You can recognize the symptoms of this disease in many ways.

On symptom of this disease I call  pop-a-clickaitis. Which is the tendency to think that if you click enough times, in enough places, stopping  this or starting that, add in reboot as much as possible, that things will magically work out better. It won’t. At most people have been kicked out of whatever work they were in.

Another significant symptom of the shoot first disease?

An attitude in technologists – that says; “hey do it anyway , if something breaks, we will fix it afterward”

So what we have hear is ‘who cares about peoples work!

The SMB Takeaway

This shoot first tendency in many technologists is a self inflicted wound.

Ensure that it is eradicated in your shop

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Like many businesses in the small to medium enterprise, I have started looking at our expected technology costs for our next fiscal year. So I chose to take this opportunity to write out for you a few posts describing how I personally look at IT budgeting for SMB organizations.

If you are like many typical SME’s and ask your IT team for a quick update on your previous fiscal years IT costs, usually you will find that the only costs that get identified  is limited to relatively simple costs such as;

“Well we bought 2 servers, 3 PC’s and 5 notebook computers, and oh yes, that contractor did some stuff on the web site.”

Probably Not!

The one thing that I can guarantee you is that those costs are usually just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

First, in a humorous vein, if your business already has perfect charts of accounts breaking down your IT CAPEX and OPEX costs, thanks for dropping by!:-)

This post is for the rest of us trying to catch up with you!

So then! If you are a general manager, let your finance team have a heads up that IT will be asking a few questions, and then ask your IT Team Lead or Manager to get this started.

Starting With Zero

To start off with zero, the first thing we have to do is determine as much as possible exactly what we spent last year. So first thing; set up a meeting with your financial  staff, In this meeting, there are two things that initially you want to look at. First, Ask that every new invoice of any kind that could be related to your IT function be flagged for your review. The second task is to look at every technology related invoice for the previous fiscal year. (tip: This good time to look at formalizing the purchase process too!)

As you go through your previous fiscal years invoices, document the cost, date and origin of each and every item purchased. I know you won’t find everything because some things may be hidden in general office supplies.  (USB keys or blank DVD’s may be fairly cheap individually, but you may be buying them by the box as people think they are disposable)

The key point here is that you are not just looking for those servers or workstations. Documenting those capital expenses is the easier part, we want to dig deeper into the operational as well as the capital costs. Examples of costs that you will be looking for include;

– Your Internet connection, there will be recurring costs for that service

– Your Web Site, and domain name, there will be recurring fees for those

– Software, look for new software purchased, but also annual subscriptions for products such as anti-virus software or hosted applications

– You found invoices for ‘spare parts’? Those mice or keyboards from the local PC box store? Great, you want those too.

– Add in all consulting & repair as well as all professional services

At this point you will have have started to build a breakdown your previous fiscal years actual IT operating expenses. There are still a few more areas that you will want to grab costs, those will come in a future post!

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In part 1 of this post, I stated that as a general manager, you already have the skill set to ask the necessary questions to ensure that recommendations or decisions made by your technology staff are suitable for your strategic goals. A background in technology is not required.

In your own field of expertise, you already know that every decision has consequences. And yes, those consequences can go far beyond that immediate decision. Some brief examples I gave in part 1, you acknowledge that there will be  trade offs required when deciding volume vs. margin, or quality vs. cost.

So! here in part 2, I wanted to give a recent example that demonstrates basic questions that allow you to better understand these trade offs when it comes to your business technology.

The Task

In our sample case, a software developer was given this task;

Evaluate and then provide a recommendation on a software tool designed for software development teams.  (In this example it was a development team member, but this could have occurred with a consultant or supplier as well.)

First, this type of team based software tool is not like Microsoft  Word where you double click the SETUP icon and keep clicking next until it finishes. This type of team based tool needs a server, and it needs a database. In other words, a few more background tasks have to take place before you can use it.

After the evaluation, the recommendation was made to purchase one of the products to run on the companies local (on site) servers.

As a General Manager?

It sounds simple! – ask for an evaluation of  several products,  then receive a recommendation on one of them!

But is that recommendation the best fit for your strategies and your goals?Is this the best fit?

And this is where I want to demonstrate that you do not need to be a technology expert to ask the questions necessary to validate the decision. Basic questions similar to the samples I provided in part 1 can lead you into further detail on what the next level consequences may be of that recommendation.

This simple evaluation and recommendation of one single tool provides an excellent example of what we are talking about about asking basic questions that ensure that the recommendation meets your strategic goals.

Question: Does this idea fit into our current infrastructure and goals?

If your goals are to minimize internal IT bits and pieces, this recommendation fails. Installing this software on your  site requires servers and other IT infrastructure. In this case the tool can also be purchased on-line as a service which may be better aligned with your goals.

Question: Does it require new services such as new databases, servers, or technologies?

Perhaps the answer is that the tool simply uses a web server and a database – and that everybody just uses their existing web browser.

With that one answer to a general question, you have hit pay dirt.

Because you can ask; what web server? Do you even have a Web server at your site? Is it the right Web server that the software needs?

What database? do you have that database? or is something else that has to be either purchased, installed and maintained?

Question: Will this work with existing solutions such as our types of servers, or backup software or does it require new investments and skill sets?

Perhaps the answer is yes to all the above, but in may cases, the answer will be no. New skills would have to be learned, and new tools deployed. Perhaps it actually uses different technology than you currently use in your environment, That would mean you would have a second type of database server, or second type of web server.

In this type of case where you choose to duplicate services, complexity will kill you on operational and maintenance costs.

The SMB Takeaway

As a manager in a small to medium business it can be too easy to assume that every recommendation or decision provided by your technology staff or supplier has already considered the next level consequences of that recommendation or decision.

Unfortunately, that will not always be the case.

I hope I have demonstrated that you do not need to know one database from another to still ask the questions that will assist you in determining the consequences, both in cost, and in your strategic goals in any recommendation or decision that involves your business technology systems.

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Photo Credit bootload via flickr

I have written several times that when you are looking for that first technology manager for your SME business, that when you evaluate candidates, looking too much at only their technology skills is a mistake.  (One example is this post titled; Results? or Skills? )

My reason for that statement is simply that the pure “tech” part of the position is easy for a technologist to pick up quickly. As your hires start being required to be more results based, you need different metrics.

I want to give an example!

As an IT Manager in a small business, yes, I do a lot of the down in the weeds “techie” tasks as well as the longer term strategic planning.

The  Case In Point

Help Desk Failure!

I was having a problem with the support team of a hosted (SaaS) product we are using. Plain and simple, after a week of phone calls  they had still not resolved the issue.

As this software can be purchased in both SaaS format, (where you run the software off of their servers), and also by direct purchase where you install the software on your own servers, that gave me an option that I chose to use!

The version of that software designed for you to buy and install yourself? Well, there was a demonstration version available for download!

You guessed it! I downloaded that trial version of the software, I installed it on a test computer, I configured it, and then I identified on my own what would resolve my support issue.

Of course, I called my hosted vendor back on the support ticket and told them what to do to fix the problem.

The SMB Takeaway

If I was assisting you in reviewing candidates for a new IT leadership position?

I would recommend candidate ‘A’ who has successfully implemented similar, or even competitive products, rather than candidate ‘B’ who has years of just technical experience with the product you are thinking of.

Because like my story above, the pure technical part is the easiest.

The difficult part is the leadership, the relationships, and the results.

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Photo Credit Francisco Martínez via flickr