IT and the free lunch

I know I promised you all over the weekend that I’d have more to say about some of the topics that came up in the Tech Chat over the weekend, but, obviously, this week has not gone as planned. So, here’s my attempt at making amends.

First off, let me point out something about myself. I got into the IT field relatively late in life. I was 29 when I got my first “tech” job. Before that I spent a number of years in accounting-type functions working at a large banking institution. So, unlike some techs, I have a background in Accounting, Finance, and even a little Economics, that comes in handy when dealing with other departments.

Now, as any Economist would tell you, the price of a good is not the only cost. Economic decisions are based not only on the pure price of a good, but on the opportunity cost of that good. So, if I see a nice laptop selling for a $1000, just having $1000 in the bank is not enough to warrant purchasing the laptop. I also have to factor in the cost of what else I could do with that money if I didn’t buy the laptop. (How much your significant other will yell at you might also be a cost you would consider..)

On that same subject, the reason the phrase “no such thing as a free lunch” is entirely true is because no matter how you come about getting the “free” lunch, your cost is always going to be what else you could have done with that time. If there is something else you can do with that time that is worth more to you than the price of a lunch, you might make the economic decision to forgo a free meal to pursue another activity, despite the fact that it will cost you more money. A perfect example of this is an oil change. Changing your oil yourself is cheaper, but it involves time, and a messy cleanup. That’s why many people who could easily change their own oil and save money, don’t.

Now, back to what we were discussing in the tech chat the other day. In discussing the extra time required to support non-standard systems, I said that to many senior management types, there is no “cost”. Upgrading across the board so that everyone has the same basic specs in front of them and so that you do not have to spend time chasing down settings, patches, documentation, etc. for any number of different systems is a monetary cost. One that accountants notice, and one they can measure with certainty. Most finance, accounting and business people are concerned with the “bottom line”, as well they should be. This upgrade affects their bottom line. As I said earlier, they’re already paying you for your time, so there’s no extra monetary cost to them if you have to spend the extra time. But, there is a cost.

As I’ve already pointed out, the cost is not a monetary one, it’s the cost of time. The opportunity cost of not upgrading won’t show up in the general ledger accounts, but it’s the cost of what else you could be doing with that time. Now measuring that is a bit tricky, but if you can show that the extra time spent dealing with dissimilar systems has prevented you from accomplishing other projects, you have a start.

If you can reach a point where not completing those projects has a detrimental effect on the productivity of your organization as a whole, then my friend, you have yourself a pretty good economic and financial case for standardization.

For example, if a nice corporate intranet would increase the productivity of all of your staff, and you find yourself unable to build it because you have to spend so much time patching different OS’es without any sort of patch management tool you could probably convince them that spending a bit on a patch management tool will allow you to finish up that intranet, which will then allow HR to automate vacation requests, and accounting to automate payroll tracking, among many other possible benefits. Chances are, you’ll get your patch management tool.

The trick is figuring out what needs to be done to benefit the entire organization, not just yourself. Let’s face it, most of us work in places where if we said we need tool “X” to save time doing our work, management wouldn’t trust us to use that “extra time” to do anything productive. Mostly that’s because they really don’t know what we do! I bet someone in your office thinks all you do is surf the web and wait for something that needs to be fixed. If you don’t think that’s true, ask yourself this. How many people get angry at you when you can’t drop what you’re doing and answer their question? Could it be because they assume nothing you’re doing could be as important as what they do? If so, convincing this person to spend money to save you time is incredibly difficult.

All that being said, there are two things you need to do if this is a major concern to you. One, like I’ve said many times before, get to know your users. If you know what they do, how they do it, and how they interact with technology to get things done, you’ll have a much better idea of what tools will help them be more productive. The other thing, as difficult as this is some times, educate people as to what you’re doing when you’re back in the server room, or your office, futzing around. Management will be more likely to trust you if they can see that you’re accomplishing things with your time, even if they don’t completely understand what it is you’ve accomplished. This will also help you to learn to speak their language, which is a very important part of making your case. You’ll quickly realize that there’s a world of difference between “integrating the database with the website will improve data flow” and “integrating the database with the website will allow members to update their own information, a task that we currently spend a few hours per day doing for them, and will allow our salespeople to access the data from anywhere they have an internet connection, instead of having to call the secretary from the road to get that information.”

You can see where the focus of the second is on what this expense will allow the entire organization to accomplish, in concrete terms they can easily understand.

Of course, if you can articulate all of this and senior management still doesn’t see the need to spend any money on technology, those new communication and people skills will also come in handy as part of your job search, at least that’s the theory I’m still holding out hope for. 🙂

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