How to balance maintenance and IT innovation

Many IT leaders admit their spending is too heavily weighted toward keep-the-lights-on projects. Here's how to tip the balance.

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For The Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based community development financial institution that manages $700 million in funds, automatic monitoring of the IT infrastructure's operations has made a huge difference, says CIO Barry Porozni. "Upgrading our monitoring system was one thing that really made an impact," he says. "It probes into applications and devices so we know proactively if email is down -- we don't need users to come to us. Same thing with data storage -- we're very data-intensive, and it tells us how close we are to running out of space."

The new monitoring system has freed up a lot of time, Porozni says. Previously, he and his staff had to go through a checklist first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening to make sure all systems were functioning well. Adopting the new technology and other steps have helped cut the percentage of the IT budget devoted to keeping the lights on from about 80% to about 70%, he says, and he aims to get it much lower.

For Michael Leeper, director of global technology at Columbia Sportswear, a Portland, Ore.-based outdoor clothing retailer with $1.67 billion in annual revenue, planning ahead also means not doing anything you're likely to regret later. "Hopefully, you've done your homework so you don't have to create short-term solutions just to solve a problem," he says. At the same time, though, he's careful not to turn down requests from business people.

"Inevitably, you have to do something you don't want to do just to make people happy," he says. When that happens, it's important not to leave the quick fix in place, but to go back and improve it. "Once that first [request] is up and running, you start figuring out how to fix it," he says. "We'll show the business what they're asking for, and then go fix it in the background. You don't want to start building on something that's bad."

Planning ahead also applies to projects designed to grow the business, so Leeper and his team are in the habit of piloting new projects before anyone asks for them. "Once the platform's stable and current, the next thing we do is make a small investment in technology we may not need immediately," he says. One example is virtual desktops -- Leeper saw that there might be a need for them so he implemented some to learn about them. "Then when the business did come to us, we didn't have to tell them to wait," he says.

Selling Your Vision

Marketing your ideas for taming keep-the-lights-on costs, both within IT and to the company at large, is an important step. Indeed, as Analog Devices went through the painful process of recovering from layoffs and then bringing its technology up to date, Forte used a simple phrase to tell both his IT colleagues and Analog executives what the team was up to: "Shrink the footprint, shift the balance [from keep-the-lights-on toward innovation], optimize services."

"The importance of communication can't be overstated," he says. That was especially true when he took over as CIO in 2009. At the time, customer satisfaction with IT was low. "I kept telling people, 'Hang in there, we'll get things in order,'" Forte recalls. "I spent time with every vice president in the company, telling the same story: Shrink, shift, optimize."

By staying relentlessly on message, Forte gave both the business and his IT group a good grasp of the priorities and what still needed to be done. "I was giving a talk at a local college about business-IT alignment," he says. "I said, 'You can walk up to anyone who works in IT at Analog Devices, ask them what the three most important initiatives are for IT, and you'll get the same answer.'" One student happened to have a friend working at Analog, so she called her friend to test Forte's assertion. Sure enough, when asked for the top priorities, the student's friend answered, "Shrink, shift, optimize."

Still, though you may have a grand vision for bringing down keep-the-lights-on expenses, Leeper advises starting out with small steps. "You'll never get anywhere if you try to do it all at once," he says. But it's important to start somewhere. "Pretty soon, you begin accomplishing little upgrades with little payoffs," he says. "And then one day you'll look around and think: 'Hey, I did it all.'"

Zetlin is a technology writer and co-author of The Geek Gap: Why Business And Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other And Why They Need Each Other to Survive. Contact her at minda@geekgap.com.

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