ManagementSpeak: We want to make IT a profit center.
Translation: We have no idea how you spend all that money. Rather than try to understand it, we just aren’t going to give you any more.
KJR Club Member Bill Beery clears up the nature of profit.

As American businesses continue in their drive to make themselves emaciated and unpleasant … lean and mean, that is … IT frequently finds itself caught in the cross-hairs. The Kafkaesque dialog that often ensues is filled with traps for the unwary, and in particular with veiled accusations for which all possible responses are admissions of guilt.

“Like the rest of the company, IT has to do more with less,” is one of those accusations hidden in a statement. You’re stuck: Claim you’re already running as lean as possible and you’ll lose your status as a team player, not to mention your credibility. Offer to cut expenses while delivering more and you’re admitting IT has a bloated budget that desperately needs trimming. How can you walk this tightrope?

Start by mastering the art of ManagementSpeak. You need to practice some doubletalk that gets you out of the conversation. The specifics are left as an exercise for the reader. Use your ingenuity.

Once you’re out of the room with your skin intact, you need a plan. Where exactly should you look as you try to “do more with less”? That’s what this and the next several columns are for.

To organize the search we’ll use the IT Effectiveness Framework and performance factor maps my consulting company, IT Catalysts, Inc., developed to assess and analyze IT organizations. The complete framework includes 137 factors that drive IT performance, divided into four categories: Business alignment, process maturity, technical architecture, and human performance. We aren’t going to walk through all 137 factors, only those with the best chance of getting you where you need to go. (The process of obtaining permission from IT Catalysts to use the framework was, if you’re wondering, a Smeagol/Gollum-like conversation. Luckily, Smeagol won.)

Start with business alignment, the buzzwordy version of, “How IT knows what it should be working on.” It covers trendy-sounding subjects like “governance” and more prosaic ones like budgeting.

It also includes the relationship between IT and the rest of the business — the single most important determinant of IT effectiveness. One piece of the relationship is simple — is it good, bad, or someplace in between. If it isn’t good, make it good: Nothing else has higher priority than that.

The other aspect of this factor is how it is formally defined: Is IT supposed to be a collaborative partner with the rest of the business, a supplier for whom the rest of the business constitutes “internal customers,” or an information utility, supplying the core IT infrastructure and applications used by embedded business-unit IT organizations to satisfy business requirements?

You need clarity on this point. If you’re supposed to be a supplier to the rest of the business (or an information utility, which amounts to being a wholesale supplier) you can stop. This isn’t a particularly good model, but if the business insists on it you need to start running IT like a real business … as a profit center. Instead of doing more with less, focus on your catalog of products and services and how you price them. Supplier/customer relationships get into the most trouble when IT can’t charge for its services, because then the true relationship isn’t one of supplier and customer. It’s more master and slave, or maybe government agency and constituency — the connection between supply and demand has been severed.

If, on the other hand, the business is more enlightened and IT is a full collaborator, you might have opportunities. Review last year’s projects. If some failed for reasons external to IT … for example, because the affected business areas weren’t able to supply the project staff needed to achieve success … then improving IT governance, using the screening process introduced a couple of weeks ago, will reduce waste by eliminating the initiatives most likely to fail.

This is your single best shot at doing more with less: You can claim success by simply doing less. Which is to say, if you cut out all the effort devoted to initiatives doomed to failure in the first place you can cut your budget without reducing the value you deliver. Who knows? Maybe you can even squeeze in a few more projects that can succeed.

Sure, it’s smoke and mirrors, but who cares? Few business executives are lexicographic purists. They won’t care about the difference between doing more with less and achieving more with less.

And anyway, what you achieve is what matters.