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Make Your Tech Guy Sweat - 2009-11-23

Tired of not knowing what your IT manager is up to? Here are five questions that will put him on the spot -- and help keep your business humming.

By Elliot Ross

Unless you're a techie yourself, you probably see the IT side of your operations as a bit of a black box. You know that technology is crucial to your business, but you have only a vague idea of what your IT people do all day.

It's time you found out. Effectively managing your firm's use of technology would put you ahead of most of the pack. Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm Forrester Research Inc. reports that even though 80% of businesses say IT is from somewhat important to critically important to their businesses, less than half say their IT effectively meets these needs.

Fortunately, there's a powerful free tool you can use to get a handle on technology: the question. If you pose the ones below, you'll quickly discover how well your company is faring and where your tech head needs to focus.

Things are likely to get awkward as you unearth where your firm is falling short. But the point isn't to beat up on your tech manager; it's to reveal how you can work together to reduce service failures and wasted spending, boost efficiency and make it easier for customers to do business with you. And you might be amazed at how many smart ideas your IT head suggests that you'll never hear if you call her only when the server crashes.

How quickly can we fix breakdowns?
Ask your tech manager whether she has the documentation for every server, software and device configuration - the equivalent of "assemble it yourself" instructions for IKEA furniture. Without these, your team can waste precious hours identifying where a failure has occurred, even one that takes just minutes to fix.

Too often, critical information about your IT assets resides in one person's head. What would your IT manager do if one of her techies were to quit tomorrow? Does she know where all the critical passwords are, how your e-mail server is set up and how IT generates those weekly sales reports?

Ask, as well, whether her team is tracking IT-asset failures systematically. How soon would you learn that a glitch with your order-fulfilment software meant you'd failed to ship 15 orders?

To get started reviewing your IT effectiveness, you should ask for weekly reports on the number of tech-related problems, their root cause and the time spent resolving them, plus comparable data for staff requests for IT help. Once your infrastructure becomes more stable, you can drop to biweekly or even monthly reports.

What's our long-term plan?
Is your tech team doing any planning beyond the server upgrade over the next few months? Your IT head should be looking one to three years down the road at issues such as how your firm can use technology to boost sales and improve customer service.

Should we upgrade our CRM system to reduce the time from sales order to delivery? How soon could we allow clients to place repeat orders through our website, rather than making them play phone tag with us?

Ask your IT head to report on the feasibility of various options for each of your key business goals. To cut costs, should you retire old, underused IT assets, or switch to software as a service for certain functions?

How are we managing our tech spending?
If you're like most CEOs, you know two things about your tech budget: it's too high, and your IT manager always seems to want your sign-off on a big, unplanned capital expense.

You're right to feel that tech is pricey. For growing busineses, it's often the biggest expense category after payroll. So it's up to you to ensure that your IT head is predicting, measuring and controlling the full costs of your technology.

Start by asking how she's limiting direct operating expenses. Is she discussing rate reductions with consultants or suppliers? Has she slashed purchasing costs by dealing with distributors rather than paying retail prices?

Then ask whether she's monitoring hidden recurring operational expenses, such as support costs and licensing fees. These can be huge: the Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm, estimates the total cost of ownership of a tech asset can be up to five times as much per year as the purchase price. Also ask whether your IT head is tracking each asset's expected life cycle so you can budget for replacements instead of making surprise ad hoc expenditures.

What will we do if a tech disaster strikes?
If you were to - oops! - delete your presentation to your advisory board, your tech team would likely be able to recover the document from a backup. But what if the server storing your presentation fails? How about if a work crew drills into a water main and floods your offices for several days?

Most firms have no plans in place to deal with such a fiasco. If that includes yours, ask your IT head to develop a matrix that estimates the probability ofvarious disasters and the cost of reducing the risk of each. Then you'll be in a position to make informed decisions.

You might decide you can live without a server for a few days. However, if it's storing mission-critical data, you might conclude that buying a backup server is an insurance policy well worth the cost.

How are we using technology to boost productivity?
I've saved the toughest question for last. Your tech head needs to get out of his office and think about how to use IT to help your entire workforce do their jobs more effectively.

Ask him what he's doing to help your staff find needed data quickly. How could his team improve your file server's storage structure to make information easier to retrieve? Should it create and diseminate templates for documents that your staff use routinely? Is he taking the initiative to propose collaboration tools such as wikis or internal blogs?

Your tech manager should also be suggesting ways to ensure that your employees make full use of the technology you've installed. Is your staff IT training up to snuff? If your purchasing manager were to approach IT about acquiring an inventory-management tool, would your tech folks know that your existing accounting package already has that capability?

Don't expect your tech manager to have ready answers for most of these questions. But by posing them, you'll make it clear that, beyond keeping your network running, you expect him to think strategically about using technology to achieve goals essential to the success of your business.

Elliot Ross has worked in information technology for 13 years, and is an Ottawa-based senior IT manager for an entrepreneurial firm. You can find his blog about technology issues for non-technology managers of SMEs here.

If you have any questions about the information above or about how we can answer the above questions, please contact Benson & Associates helpdesk at 1-877-247-1664.