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Educating Executives on the Value of Systems Management

The best way to talk to executives is in a language with which they're comfortable and familiar. For most senior managers, this means presenting information and proposals in commonly used business terms, not technical jargon. IT personnel in infrastructure organizations sometimes become so enthusiastic about the technical merits of a product that they fail to showcase its business benefits effectively. Yet these business benefits are often the very factors that will decide whether a package is approved. Executives need to be educated about the value of systems management in general, and about the benefits of individual functions and products in particular.

I experienced firsthand the value of effective executive education while heading up the infrastructure department at a major motion picture studio. Similar to many large, established companies, this shop for years had relied on mainframe computers for the processing of their critical corporate business systems. By the mid-1990s, it was apparent that this company's long-used legacy systems were approaching the end of their useful life. A major migration project plan was initiated to replace the outdated mainframe applications with more modern client/server applications. The functionality and scalability of these new systems would better meet the current and future needs of the corporation.

The first of several business applications were successfully implemented a short time after initiating the project plan. The payroll and human resources departments were due to be installed next, but we would need to add more server capacity first. We discussed this necessary increase in capacity with the executive managers who would decide on approving of the additional costs. We explained how the expansion of the database due to more required fields would result in more channel traffic on the system. We showed how the expected increase in concurrent users would push processor utilizations close to full capacity during peak periods. Other technical information involving security and automated backup software also helped to build a solid justification for more servers. Or so we thought.

While the foregoing arguments were strong and legitimate, a slightly different approach is what finally prompted the senior managers to approve our request. We had instituted a formal capacity-planning process several months earlier. A cornerstone of this process involved discussions with non–IT users and their managers about future workload projections. When we presented our information to senior management, we included the data that we had collected from the user departments.

The executives immediately identified with the terms and projections that the user department managers had provided. Graphs indicating current and future workloads were readily interpreted by our senior-level audience, as were the correlations between increased headcounts to larger numbers of concurrent users. The point here is that while our technical facts presented a solid case for capacity increases, the business picture we painted with the help of our user departments was even more persuasive.

No matter how compelling your reasons may be for additional IT expenditures, they may fall short if not put in the language of senior management. The challenge is to determine which language best addresses a particular decision-maker. Some may speak purely in bottom-line terms such as what will be the ultimate total cost of ownership. Others may be more financially oriented and focus on items such as depreciation, tax implications, or lease-versus-buy comparisons. Some may prefer descriptive narratives while others choose graphs, charts, and pictures. Regardless of their preference, the more closely you can align your proposal to their comfort zone, the more likely you will be of acquiring their approval.

Three Universal Principles Involving Executive Support

During my many years working with, among, and as an IT executive, I have observed the following three universal principles involving executive support:

  • Managers love alternatives.

    Making decisions is one of the primary responsibilities of managers. They appreciate a simplified decision-making process that includes viable alternatives. For infrastructure decisions, such alternatives could involve choices between products, vendors, platforms, and levels of support.

  • Managers hate surprises.

    Managers don't like to be blindsided by business surprises such as hidden costs, unpredicted delays, or unscheduled outages.

  • Managers thrive on metrics.

    Properly designed measurements can be so effective at influencing managers that they are sometimes referred to as a weapon for executive support.

Developing a Powerful Weapon for Executive Support

CIOs share common characteristics when making decisions. One of these is to rely on meaningful business metrics. By this I mean metrics that clearly demonstrate the business value of a decision. An incident I experienced while working in aerospace can serve to illustrate this point.

During this time I was managing one of the largest data centers in the country for a major defense contractor. The data center supported a highly classified military program. This particular defense venture required huge amounts of processing power to drive, among other applications, advanced 2D and 3D graphic systems. As with many high-cost defense projects that involve cutting-edge technologies, cutbacks started occurring to the program. These curtailments eventually began to reduce department budgets, including that of IT. But to help keep the program on budget and within schedule, IT needed to invest more in high-availability and response-time resources for the online graphical computer systems.

Traditional availability metrics such as percent uptime or hours per week of downtime were not presenting a very convincing argument to the budget approvers. Two of the most critical measures of productivity of the program were the number of engineering drawings released per day and the number of work orders completed per hour. The former was tied directly to the availability of the online engineering systems, and the latter was directly influenced by the uptime of the online business systems.

We knew that senior management relied heavily on these two metrics to report progress on the program to their military customers. Since our traditional IT availability metrics correlated so closely to these two critical business metrics, we decided to use versions of these business metrics to report on system uptime. Prior to this we would have shown how we improved availability from, say, 98.7% to 99.3%, and response time per transaction from 1.2 seconds to 0.9 seconds. Instead, we charted how our improvements increased the number of daily released drawings and completed work orders. Furthermore, when the data showed daily release drawings improving from 18 to 20, we extrapolated the increases, based on a 24-day work-month, to a monthly total of 48 drawings, and yearly to 576 drawings.

These volumes of improvement caught the attentive eye of executives and eventually led to approvals of the requested IT expenditures. Not only were the quantities of improvement impressive and substantiated, but they were presented in the type of meaningful business metrics with which most managers could identify. Never underestimate the power of these kinds of metrics in securing executive support.

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