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How to prevent IT department overload

By Minda Zetlin
May 20, 2013 06:00 AM ET

A High-Level View

How do you stop the madness? It begins with a long-term, high-level approach that takes IT's most important goals into account. Unfortunately, many IT shops aren't taking such an approach. "When I stepped into this role a couple of years ago, we probably had more than 200 projects going at any given time, but we were responding to a lot of quick-reaction type things. There wasn't much of a coherent strategy that linked all those things together," says Joe Mahaffee, executive vice president and chief information security officer at Booz Allen Hamilton, a management and IT consultancy in McLean, Va., that had revenue of $5.86 billion in 2012.

So Mahaffee and his team worked with corporate leaders to identify seven strategic initiatives they believed would be important and then plan what needed to be done to complete those projects within a couple of years. For instance, a decision to move to unified communications allowed the firm to stop spending money on extensive PBX systems. "Now if we're modernizing an office, we invest in voice-over-IP technology instead," he says.

A strategic approach won't work without the support and participation of upper management. That's why many IT departments find that establishing a governing group of some sort -- one made up of IT leaders and their upper-level business counterparts -- is the first step to taming a chaotic IT workload.

"About a year ago, we changed the model of how we govern all IT projects," Mahaffee says. "There were four governance models that had some sort of contact with IT, and we centralized all that. Now we have one governing body providing direction and helping us define priorities." That group includes Mahaffee, Booz Allen CIO Kevin Winter and leaders from each of the company's marketing teams and major departments. All in all, the group is about 15 people who meet fairly frequently. "It helps me keep alignment with the business," says Winter. "Requests get funneled to this body so decisions aren't made in a vacuum. Everybody around the table gets a say in what gets funded."

Knowing When to Say No

More important, there is top-level backing for decisions about what doesn't get funded. Experts agree: The only way to put an end to IT overload is with the support of upper-level management. One of Gilmore's first acts at the company with the overloaded IT department was to decree that IT would not take on new projects for a time. And he did that with the complete support of the company's top executive, who had heard about enough problems with technology projects to know something had to change.

"If you try to start doing this without top-level support, business group leaders will go back to the top executives and say, 'IT isn't giving me what I need and therefore I'm not meeting the goals you set for me,'" he says.

Project Management

Contractors Take Up the Slack
When IT Departments Are Overloaded

When work simply has to get done and IT employees are overloaded, one solution is to outsource some of the work for a new project. Contractors have their limitations -- it may not be appropriate to outsource project management, and they won't have a detailed knowledge of how a particular company functions or what its priorities are. But working with contractors does give many strapped IT departments a flexible workforce when projects pile up. "I've worked with a lot of companies who use the rule that one-third of IT project work is done in-house, and two-thirds is outsourced," reports Bruce Myers, managing director at AlixPartners.

For Mazda's North American operations, relying on IT contractors is a way of life, according to CIO Jim DiMarzio. This is partly because the auto industry in general strives to keep full-time head counts low, but using contractors also gives the IT department, which has 42 full-time employees, the ability to shrink and expand at will, says DiMarzio, noting that while his Hiroshima-based Mazda Motor Corp. is a $21 billion global business, the automaker's U.S. operation is relatively small.

"Because we knew we were head-count-constrained, we put together a strategy where most of our full-time employees are analysts and project managers," he says. "We want our staff to be the people who could run this place. We can always go find programmers when we need them."

On most projects, Mazda IT employees serve as lead analysts and subject-matter experts, while contractors do the actual coding. "While they're off doing the coding, our staff will be working on other projects. We try to prioritize so that there's a focus on a primary project and there's always a secondary project they can work on at the same time."

But when crunch times really hit, such as during model year changes or the beginning of the fiscal year, Mazda can increase contractor participation. "If we find we are out of good systems analysts, we'll take one of the smaller projects, package it up and have one of the vendors do it from soup to nuts," DiMarzio says.

When that happens, "we insist that there be fixed-price bids on those projects," he adds. "That helps make sure they stay within their time frames and pay attention to the projects. It's not a never-ending supply of money coming their way."

Mazda also gets the most benefit from its contractors by having one or two representatives of each service provider on-site, so they can get to know the company. That's important, because Mazda has its own methodology for tech projects and insists that contractors follow it.

Some contractors have become virtual employees, working on-site on an ongoing basis. "There are enough projects that we always keep them fully occupied," DiMarzio says. "We want to keep them on our account rather than someone else's account." And when IT is ready to hire someone full time, they're ready and usually willing, says DiMarzio, adding "I've converted some contractors to employees."

-- Minda Zetlin

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