IT departments sure can waste a lot of time.
Let me clarify. IT departments often look like they are a waste of time and resources. And with most IT departments operating as cost centers—meaning they aren’t generating revenue—companies looking to improve efficiency often look at eliminating the low-hanging fruit. (Like the IT guy kicked back with his feet up on his desk, for starters.)
There are some good ways to improve efficiency, and some not so great ways. We’re not talking about firing half the IT staff and dumping their workload on the people left behind. That can have unintended consequences, like losing the only guy with the server password.
Rather, we want to focus on waste. Trimming the fat. Making the IT staff’s job easier (and less redundant) while reducing costs.
Efficiency is not something you can fix with one swift move and suddenly make everything better. Establishing efficiency takes trust, relationships and incremental actions.
That starts with an evaluation: Look at your IT environment as a process, and examine each task as a process. Map out the steps to each process in detail. This is where trusting your employees comes in handy. Often, they can map these out quickly, and they may already have suggestions for improvement. Trust that your employees have a relationship with the equipment, and that they want to see things run smoothly and cleanly.
Once you have a map, look for places where tasks or processes are duplicated. Does each department have its own server? Maybe you can consolidate. Does the help desk have multiple calls for the same issue? Fix it or train the users. Too many tasks for IT to handle within its budget? Look for ways to reduce their workload, like managed security or cloud-based storage.
Once you’ve found a list of inefficient processes, it’s a good idea to take a moment to consider how a change will affect your business.
When you’re considering improving a process for efficiency, make sure that you’re not sacrificing the duty of the process. For example, you leverage a help desk with real people so that employees can get help from a real person. Outsourcing help desk to a computer subverts that goal of easy-to-use support, as anyone who’s ever worked at a help desk understands.
Simply cutting for the sake of cutting can get really ugly. It also can be a surprisingly emotional process. Sometimes employees are attached to a piece of equipment or a process. Sometimes users are frustrated beyond belief. Take those emotions into consideration. If replacing an obnoxious printer makes things only slightly more efficient but makes a lot of employees happy, that can be a net gain. Likewise, trying to convince a vice president to upgrade his copy of Quickbooks 2008 might be more work than it saves.
Coders often say that if a task has to be repeated more than two or three times, it can be automated. For example, if a help desk guy has to answer the same question multiple times, he can automate that process by writing up a knowledge base article.
There are other issues that IT departments face, however, that can’t necessarily be automated. The relentless march of technological progress means that your hardware will be obsolete after a few years. You have to have someone to repair and replace it.
Also, attrition can leave an IT department in the lurch. Some shops run a tight operation, where everyone has a specialty with little backup coverage. If one person takes another job or gets themselves fired, it can cause problems. There are many tales on the internet about recovering from losing the one guy with all the passwords.
In instances like these, a good policy is to examine IT as an entire process. Is it still working to have four layers of interface over the old BASIC database the boss’s kid wrote in the 1980s, with another four employees to manage? Or can we bite the bullet and pay someone to migrate the whole system to something more modern (and less frustrating)? Do we have documentation for each process and are login credentials backed up in a secure location? These are all important considerations.
You could ask your SysAdmin guy to stop putting out fires in the server room to go write some HTML for your website. But that’s actually a loss in efficiency. The SysAdmin has to change hats, and might not know HTML as well as someone who writes only HTML. Not to mention that all the SysAdmin tasks that will get backlogged because he’s overworked.
Eventually, you’ll want to look at the cost and value of hiring experts. Maybe during the next upgrade cycle, you switch to cloud-based server and storage infrastructure. Keep your IT staff, just ease its workload a bit. Maybe it means regular meetings with IT to ask their recommendations on reducing repetitive tasks. Because they work with your particular infrastructure every day, they have a relationship with it. You should trust their input.
Efficiency doesn’t have to be scary. It can just mean baby steps to make things better. Treat efficiency as a process of its own, and trust in the relationships that have evolved in the system. You can have clean, elegant solutions so things run smoothly, plus you get to keep all the parts of your business that make it unique and amazing.