Why It’s Time to Re-Think IT Funding Models! – Part 1 of 3


The Live 3rd Rail!

Recently, a colleague said to me about a client, “It’s time to raise the subject of their IT funding model.  The current model is causing all sorts of dysfunctional behaviors!”  My response was, “You are right – but I really don’t want to go there just yet.  I don’t think they’re ready to hear that message, or, more importantly to tackle the ‘live third rail’ and do anything about it!”

I’m not particularly proud of my response – in some respects, it was ‘wimping out’ on an important client conversation.  On the other hand, I’ve had mixed results over the years in getting clients to tackle this issue.  Let me be clear – getting agreement that the funding model is broken and is driving dysfunctional behaviors is always an easy sell.  In just about every client I’ve ever worked with, the funding model is clearly broken!  In some cases, it’s slightly broken.  In most cases, it’s badly broken, with all sorts of bad behaviors as a result, including inefficient consumption, underspending on IT infrastructure, lack of value realization, an overly conservative IT portfolio, and so on.  But few CIO’s have the courage to tackle funding models – with so many battles to wage in the name of realizing business value from IT, the funding battle just seems too big, hairy, complicated and politically charged to take on.

Where I have had success, it has usually been thanks to one of a couple of conditions for success:

  1. There was a strong partnership in place between the CIO and the CFO, or…
  2. The CEO (or Chairman, or Board) recognized that the IT funding model was broken and wanted to change it to drive the right behaviors

What’s Wrong With IT Funding Models Today?

Actually, most of today’s IT funding models are riddled with problems, but the biggest issue is that they DON’T DRIVE RESPONSIBLE CONSUMPTION BEHAVIORS!

  • Many IT services are essentially “free” (recovered as overhead costs and corporate ‘taxes’) leading to irresponsible behaviors.
  • Other services that could increase the business value of IT (e.g., consulting services to identify and leverage high value opportunities for IT activities and investments) are dis-incented  (i.e., too scarce, too expensive, or, in many cases, not even available).
  • Most pricing models lack transparency.  The ways that services are packaged and priced hide the cost drivers from the business consumer.  As a result, the consumer has no idea how to manage these costs, and wonders why IT bills fluctuate so widely.
  • Most pricing models don’t reflect business value – often the bulk of the IT bill is for services seen as low value (e.g., basic desktop support).
  • Some pricing models are just too complex!  If the clients don’t understand what they are paying for, why, and what they can do to control costs, the model is broken.  If clerical effort is being expended around the company to check on, decipher and challenge every IT bill, then the model is broken!

Decomposing the Funding Model

So, before we talk about how to change funding models, let’s take apart the underlying components and issues.

Pricing vs. Recovery

The first and most obvious distinction is between pricing – how we price IT services – and recovery – how we recover IT costs.  These are completely separate and distinct – and yet, sometimes get commingled unnecessarily.  Just because a services costs you $x per unit to deliver does not mean you have to charge some function of $x, or charge by the same units as the costs are incurred.  You may chose to ‘give away’ some services, or to charge different clients at different levels, or charge based upon units different from those you pay by.  Recognizing this separation between pricing and recovery gives you tremendous pricing flexibility – and the ability to think about consumption behaviors you’d like to drive, and price accordingly.  Then you can tackle the recovery side of the equation separately – and adjust pricing levels and recovery strategies to balance the budget, as it were.

IT Savvy vs. IT Literacy

The “IT Savvyness” of business managers and executives is a crucial factor in any and all IT value discussions.  This term was first coined by Professor Peter Weill at the MIT CISR.  It is quite distinct from the more common concept of IT literacy.  I can say that Fred is IT literate – he knows his way around Windows and the main Microsoft Office products and successfully installed his own WiFi local area network in his home.  This does not necessarily mean that Fred is an astute steward of IT resources – understanding how IT can really differentiate his business area.  Nor does it meant that Fred can appreciate the distinction between one-time and full life cycle costs.  Bill, on the other hand, struggles with his PC.  But he does appreciate the need for ongoing investment in IT infrastructure.  He does realize that the business owns the accountability for extracting value from IT investments.  Bill might not be very IT literate, but he’s quite IT savvy!

Business-IT Funding Principles

I’ve mentioned Principles in many other posts – they can be a great tool for surfacing some of the tough strategic choices, and then making those choices explicit.  Business-IT Funding Principles do this for the strategic choices around IT funding.  For example, one of my favorite IT Funding Principles is;

We optimize IT investments for the enterprise – not for individual business units.

Or, if you prefer:

We optimize IT investments for the individual business units rather than for the enterprise.

I don’t care in the abstract case which one of these you pick, but pick one and stick to it!  Hopefully, the one you pick will be consistent with your agreed business model, and the degree to which that model calls for common processes and/or shared information.

A less contentious example of an IT Funding Principle is:

Business units directly fund both business-specific IT projects and the steady-state IT expenses associated with the outputs of these projects, rather than funding common activities via corporate contribution or standard allocations.

The rationale for this Principle (all Principles should state the rationales behind them!) would be that IT capital and expenses should be funded by the party best able to manage the demand for the IT services and thereby the cost.  An implication of this Principle (all Principles should articulate their implications!) would be that services that are specific to a business unit, such as third-party maintenance fees, other maintenance support, desktop costs, and IT labor for service requests, should be borne by those business areas that consume the services and are best able to justify the cost relative to business value.

We will pick up on the underlying IT Funding components and issues in the next post.

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