One of the major issues IT executives face is how to charge their departmental costs back to each part of the business according to their usage. It’s a touchy issue that can be the source of end-user disenchantment with the performance and contribution of the IT organization. Ultimately, charge-back friction can hobble IT’s ability to make necessary investments in new capabilities and become the primary cause of misallocated IT spending. The two risks are related: Unless an IT department can calculate the real costs of the services it provides to specific parts of the business and charge for them accordingly, it is almost impossible for line-of-business department managers to assign priorities to the “keep the lights on” part of the budget, so even low-priority maintenance or upgrade efforts can crowd out all but the most pressing needs. The issue of allocating IT department costs spills over to Finance, which typically handles the allocations in budgeting and profit calculations. As a first step toward establishing an effective means of funding the IT function, I believe the finance department must establish better methods of allocating IT costs. Eventually the proper allocation of IT costs also becomes an issue for senior corporate executives as well because it has a direct impact on how effectively a company uses information technology.
To illustrate how using inept IT cost allocation methods can lead to bad results, let’s start with a very simple example. A company decides to lump together all IT costs and charge each department a prorated share based on some proxy; for example, headcount or floor space occupied or some combination of proxies. Any such proxy system inevitably will favor one department over another. Human nature being what it is, the inability to draw a straight line between the charge and the benefits delivered will leave everyone thinking they are paying more than their fair share. Moreover, in most companies, because business managers are not charged directly for their consumption of IT services, they have no idea how that impacts IT department costs. In the absence of price signals, unintended overconsumption and misaligned priorities are almost inevitable, and thus IT spending does not support the business as effectively as it should.
Our benchmark research illustrates the fundamental problem that companies have in allocating IT costs. Either they do not have the processes in place to ensure that they connect the right information to the appropriate action (for example, they do not charge costs accurately enough to end users so the users can’t make more rational decisions about what they are willing to spend), or they are not collecting the right information about the costs. Many suffer from some combination of the two. Having greater visibility into what a company actually is spending and on whose behalf and a better process for deciding what to spend money on are likely to increase the value the IT budget buys.
Our research also assessed the effectiveness of companies’ IT spending on a five-point scale from very ineffective (1) to very effective (5). The research finds that participants who said they have accurate systems for identifying and allocating IT costs have higher spending effectiveness scores (averaging 4.0) than those who said theirs were generally accurate (3.6), generally inaccurate (3.0) or very inaccurate (2.6).Tracking actual costs and charging them to specific users who incur them is the best way to be sure funds are spent well. Having visibility into the true costs of those IT resources and a process for controlling them promotes better use of the resources.
The research also finds that for IT departments there is a virtuous cycle in accurately measuring and charging IT costs. Companies that are more effective in using their IT budgets are also likely to have had greater IT budget increases in the preceding years than those that were less effective. In other words, a more accurate costing system gives a company more bang for its IT buck, which results in more bucks for IT. IT departments that give managers better visibility and control over IT costs charged back to them – and can demonstrate to their business clients that they are getting a positive return on their investment – are likely to be rewarded with higher budgets than those that do not or cannot.
Having the right data, the right analytical tools and the right allocation methods are all prerequisites to having an accurate IT charge-back system. As part of their overall responsibility to manage their portfolio of IT assets, CIOs must have the ability to track who and what is driving which IT costs. CFOs should play a larger role in the budgeting and expense allocation processes by ensuring that IT costs and cost drivers are more visible to the organization rather than relying on broad-brush allocations. Done correctly, I think this will improve the alignment of IT spending with the company’s needs. For their part, CEOs must understand the importance of achieving better alignment of IT spending and the strategic requirements of the company. They must ensure there is a formal process for periodically reviewing that alignment and capabilities to measure accurately spending on and use of information technology.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research