IT organizations are often perfect fodder for Dilbert cartoons, continuing laughable business practices that are more likely to slow things down, rather than speed things up.
The challenge of improving IT productivity can be approached in many ways, from redesigning an IT shop's operational processes to rethinking how IT professionals personally approach their work. Although I'm a process guy, I'll save the high-minded redesign approach for a later column, and focus today on some personal advice.
- Stop going to meetings. I'm serious. Only attend meetings with customers. There is only one kind of work that contributes to productivity -- work that produces a measurable result. Organizations large and small spend endless hours in useless internal meetings. I know of one company that had an internal meeting that never ended -- until the CEO left the company. The most productive meetings are always with customers -- internal or external. Too many internal meetings are spent arguing about resources or the allocation of costs. The worst meetings are those that try to solve the conundrum of transfer pricing between internal organizations, like IT and manufacturing. Just remember that no company becomes great doing business with itself.
- Never start a project unless its business purpose is clear. Two of the biggest drags on IT productivity are redoing work and work that never gets implemented. Every company has a graveyard of projects that were never completed because the work did not meet a business need. IT organizations often start projects without clarity of direction or required results. Sometimes, internal business partners are just illusive and lack clarity themselves about what they want. They will let an IT organization labor for months without paying any attention to what's going on. When you see these symptoms, stop the work. This is the time to call a confrontative meeting and get clear about what the business needs and wants. If you cannot get to that point, then you are wasting your time and the company's money.
- Face facts. Is your IT project contributing to business goals? That performance can be rated in financial terms -- such as growth, costs, profits, earnings per share, returns on invested capital -- and in nonfinancial terms such as quality, time to market, customer satisfaction. Too many companies measure productivity on intermediate results, such as lines of code produced per day. What does that matter if the code is never implemented or accomplishes no real improvement in how the business runs?
Sometimes it's hard to get business folks to talk about how they want IT to help improve the performance of the business -- but you have to push for this discussion. Otherwise, an IT organization can descend to a level of complacency where all that matters is whether its staff is busy. Busy work is no substitute for real business results. Of course, the most ambitious IT organization wants to go beyond improving the performance of the current business. It wants to help change the business, just the way companies like Dell used technology to change the computer business and Wal-Mart has used technology to change retailing. In these days of hypercompetitiveness, you want to be sure that you have high ambitions for IT's productivity.
James Champy is chairman of Perot Systems Corp.'s consulting practice and head of strategy for the company. He is also the author of the best-selling books Reengineering the Corporation, Reengineering Management, The Arc of Ambition and X-Engineering the Corporation.