Here to help

My company has a hard time maintaining its profit margins. Customers can buy what we sell (stuff like paper cups, plastic spoons, paper towels, mops and floor wax) from lots of other companies. The prices we can charge are always being driven down.

So how do we avoid having our profits squeezed to nothing? IT helps. We start when one of us walks into a business meeting and says, "Hi, I'm from IT, and I'm here to help." The business people in my company are glad to hear this because my IT staffers are becoming masters of the 80 percent solution: we identify the repetitious things the business people do. As the company grows, such routine work (typically 70 to 90 percent of what they do) is overwhelming these users. The IT group is learning to design and quickly roll out simple systems that automate this routine work. These systems are cheap and quick to build because we never try to automate anything that isn't routine.

I see this as a major paradigm shift. For the past 30 years or more, people in IT have dreaded questions like, "Yes, but what about this?" or, "Can your system handle that?" Those comments always focus on exceptions to the general rules that a system is built to handle. Often, they have the power to stop new systems dead. They cause IT people to add complexity and expense to otherwise simple systems in order to handle exceptions that happen only once in a while.

There's no longer a need to build complex systems to appease obstructionists, because there aren't many of them left. And since workflows change quickly and the most complex workflows change the fastest, why spend a lot of time automating them? Instead, learn to see complexity as combinations of simple, repetitive tasks and automate the simplest and most repetitive of them.

These systems can handle routine transactions freeing up people to focus on the nonroutine and to find the profit opportunities that are hidden there. This is how IT helps my company thrive.

Michael Hugos is CIO at Network Services, a distribution cooperative that sells food-service and janitorial supplies and the author of Building the Real-Time Enterprise: An Executive Briefing (John Wiley & Sons, 2004)

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