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Acquiring Executive Support for Infrastructure Processes

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In most organizations, IT professionals need approval from senior managers for expenditures. In this article, infrastructure expert Rich Schiesser suggests that approval and support may be acquired by speaking the right language and understanding three universal principles of management.
This article is adapted from Rich Schiesser's forthcoming book, IT Systems Management (Prentice Hall, 2001), a part of Harris Kern's Enterprise Computing Institute. Come to our special Harris Kern Enterprise Computing Institute Store to receive discounts on this and other titles in the series.
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Regardless of how well we design and implement systems management processes, they likely will fail without the approval and support of senior management. Requests for systems management hardware, software, or staffing need approval by IT executives or their superiors. This article presents effective methods for acquiring this necessary executive support. (Note: The terms process, function, and discipline are used synonymously in this article in referring to the elements of systems management.)

There are two reasons executive support is so essential today. The first is that a larger number of critical processes are necessary to run data centers effectively. This requires more key resources and more management support to acquire those resources than in days past. In the early 1970s, availability and online response times were key measures of an effective data center. Functions such as storage management, capacity planning, change management, problem management, and disaster recovery, whose importance would grow substantially in the 1980s, were not yet major factors in optimizing an infrastructure. Fewer functions meant fewer resources were required, and less management support was needed to acquire them.

Secondly, today's IT executives are much more technically astute than their counterparts from several years back. Infrastructure support groups of computer centers from two or three decades ago focused primarily on technical issues. Internal support groups were relatively isolated from outside influences such as executive management, end users, and application developers. The limited contact that internal support personnel had outside IT was with hardware service engineers or software marketing representatives. Today these internal support groups are frequently besieged with requests from a more computer-literate user community, including executives.

This technical knowledge of the modern IT executive can act as a two-edged sword. Many executives have just enough technical knowledge to understand fixed and ongoing costs, but not enough technical experience to fully appreciate the requirements and importance of a well-implemented infrastructure.

Developing a Business Case for Systems Management Processes

By the time most IT supervisors are promoted into senior executive positions, they're oriented more toward the goals of the business than the intricacies of technology. Their peers are typically COOs, CFOs, and the heads of various departments such as engineering, manufacturing, operations, distribution, and marketing. Consequently, the focus of most CIOs is on ensuring a reasonable return on the investment in technology, rather than the technology itself.

A common method that many CIOs use to ensure the cost effectiveness of IT systems is to insist on well-developed business cases. In its simplest form, a business case is a clear and succinct cost justification for funds to be expended on technology. An effective business case itemizes all the associated costs of a new system or process, and compares it to the expected benefits. One of the major hurdles with this approach is that it's often very difficult to predict accurately the true benefits of a new system or process. Even when the estimated benefits are reasonably accurate, they're seldom described in terms of cost savings. This is because in many instances the paybacks are more qualitative then quantitative.

Dollar costs and dollar savings are the common denominators used by business professionals in making technology decisions. Yet they're among the measures least offered by IT professionals in presenting the benefits of a process improvement. This is especially true when estimating the benefits of a particular systems management function. For example, it may be relatively easy to show how an effective availability process reduces downtime by, say, 10 hours per month. But it's much more difficult to quantify the downtime into actual dollars lost. This difficulty stems from the variety of hidden impacts that an outage may cause—lost productivity in terms of labor time, rework due to errors or lack of restarts, time lost due to users not knowing exactly when the system came back up, lowered morale due to the effect of interrupted services.

One way to make business cases more effective is to develop them for the appropriate systems management function. Understanding which functions are the most beneficial to a company at any point in time is critical to acquiring the necessary management support. An often-overlooked aspect along these lines is the fact that, as the business goals of an organization change, so may its dependence on a specific systems management discipline. The maturity cycle of a typical dot-com will illustrate this point.

During the startup phase of many dot-coms, the infrastructure function emphasized most frequently is availability. As the number of visitors to the Web site increases, performance and tuning come more into play. When the growth of the site starts to accelerate, capacity planning likely takes precedence. The maturing of both the company and its infrastructure normally then requires more formalized processes for storage management, security, and disaster recovery.

It pays to know exactly which systems management disciplines are most significant to your company at any particular point in time, and to be aware that these functions will likely change over time. It's also important to understand which business goals of IT are most critical to meeting the business goals of the company. This will usually help determine which infrastructure functions are most critical to meeting the IT business goals.

The next step in building an effective business case for selected disciplines of systems management is to confer with senior IT executives to confirm that the infrastructure functions previously thought to be crucial to meeting business goals are in fact the correct functions. This meeting should also serve to prioritize these functions in the event that multiple functions end up competing for scarce budget dollars.

The most challenging step is to estimate accurately all costs associated with installing a particular function. The obvious costs for items such as software licenses and the labor for implementation and operation are easy to identify and quantify. But some costs are occasionally overlooked when implementing a systems management function. These include expenses for recruitment, training, office space, software maintenance and enhancements, hardware maintenance and upgrades, and scheduled outages.

Similarly, all associated benefits need to be itemized and converted to dollar savings. Just as some costs of a function may go unnoticed, so also may several benefits of implementing a systems management function. These benefits include the ability to predict capacity shortages before they occur, avoiding lost labor time of users by reducing both the frequency and duration of outages, increasing productivity by improving response times, ensuring business continuity during disaster recovery, cost avoidance of rebuilding databases, and the reprocessing of transactions.

A final step—seldom pursued, but capable of adding invaluable credibility to your business case—is to solicit testimonials from customers in other companies about a particular systems management software product. Customers should be selected from an environment as similar as possible to your own. This simple technique can strengthen a justification immensely by demonstrating real-life benefits of a product in an actual business setting.

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