IT doesn’t matter, part 7

This is the seventh installment of the article “IT Doesn’t Matter.” Part 1 is here.

From offense to defense

So what should companies do? From a practical standpoint, the most important lesson to be learned from earlier infrastructural technologies may be this: When a resource becomes essential to competition but inconsequential to strategy, the risks it creates become more important than the advantages it provides. Think of electricity. Today, no company builds its business strategy around its electricity usage, but even a brief lapse in supply can be devastating (as some California businesses discovered during the energy crisis of 2000). The operational risks associated with IT are many – technical glitches, obsolescence, service outages, unreliable vendors or partners, security breaches, even terrorism – and some have become magnified as companies have moved from tightly controlled, proprietary systems to open, shared ones. Today, an IT disruption can paralyze a company’s ability to make its products, deliver its services, and connect with its customers, not to mention foul its reputation. Yet few companies have done a thorough job of identifying and tempering their vulnerabilities. Worrying about what might go wrong may not be as glamorous a job as speculating about the future, but it is a more essential job right now.

In the long run, though, the greatest IT risk facing most companies is more prosaic than a catastrophe. It is, simply, overspending. IT may be a commodity, and its costs may fall rapidly enough to ensure that any new capabilities are quickly shared, but the very fact that it is entwined with so many business functions means that it will continue to consume a large portion of corporate spending. For most companies, just staying in business will require big outlays for IT. What’s important – and this holds true for any commodity input – is to be able to separate essential investments from ones that are discretionary, unnecessary, or even counterproductive.

At a high level, stronger cost management requires more rigor in evaluating expected returns from systems investments, more creativity in exploring simpler and cheaper alternatives, and a greater openness to outsourcing and other partnerships. But most companies can also reap significant savings by simply cutting out waste. Personal computers are a good example. Every year, businesses purchase more than 100 million PCs, most of which replace older models. Yet the vast majority of workers who use PCs rely on only a few simple applications – word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, and Web browsing. These applications have been technologically mature for years; they require only a fraction of the computing power provided by today’s microprocessors. Nevertheless, companies continue to roll out across-the-board hardware and software upgrades.

Much of that spending, if truth be told, is driven by vendors’ strategies. Big hardware and software suppliers have become very good at parceling out new features and capabilities in ways that force companies into buying new computers, applications, and networking equipment much more frequently than they need to. The time has come for IT buyers to throw their weight around, to negotiate contracts that ensure the long-term usefulness of their PC investments and impose hard limits on upgrade costs. And if vendors balk, companies should be willing to explore cheaper solutions, including open-source applications and bare-bones network PCs, even if it means sacrificing features. If a company needs evidence of the kind of money that might be saved, it need only look at Microsoft’s profit margin.

In addition to being passive in their purchasing, companies have been sloppy in their use of IT. That’s particularly true with data storage, which has come to account for more than half of many companies’ IT expenditures. The bulk of what’s being stored on corporate networks has little to do with making products or serving customers – it consists of employees’ saved e-mails and files, including terabytes of spam, MP3s, and video clips. Computerworld estimates that as much as 70% of the storage capacity of a typical Windows network is wasted – an enormous unnecessary expense. Restricting employees’ ability to save files indiscriminately and indefinitely may seem distasteful to many managers, but it can have a real impact on the bottom line. Now that IT has become the dominant capital expense for most businesses, there’s no excuse for waste and sloppiness.

Part 8

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