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Are you efficient but ineffective? Or effective but inefficient? Tue 17 Jun 08

Get_the_balance_right_marquette_la IT managers can't survive by just whacking costs out of the system--they have to add value and let management know how they're doing it. [See: "Quit Trying to Reduce Costs!"]  One important reason for this is self-preservation.  If we only focus on being cost efficient we may never get the opportunity to show we can add value.

IT managers perform a constant balancing act between providing exceptional service to our users and being efficient by keeping costs low. We really do want to provide the best possible service to our users. We'd love to have a battalion of resources at the beck and call of our customers--everyone from the business analysts and developers to the PC and system support people. The catch is that there are practical limits to what we can provide.

Budget pressures limit the personnel and systems resources we can provide. We are constantly being pressured to do more with less. In this sense our goal is to be as "efficient" as possible. Realistically we have to balance these goals so we deliver value--the right amount of service at the right cost.

Here's where the balancing game gets dangerous: We can be "efficiently ineffective," keeping our costs down but ultimately not really providing the service our customers need. Or "inefficiently effective," where we provide first-class service but at champagne prices that our company can't pay.

Of course, our destination is to be "efficiently effective"--but reality suggests most of us start on one side or the other of that Mount Everest of goals. Happily, we do have some degree of control over whether we begin our ascent from the "efficient ineffectiveness" or "inefficient effective" side of the mountain.

Those of us who tend toward efficient ineffectiveness typically overemphasize efficiency and standardization. We write air-tight policies, enforce standardization without exception, provide automated service instead of personal service and make our users adjust to what is most efficient for IT. Admittedly there is some hyperbole in that last statement and some of these actions actually benefit our customers in addition to making IT more efficient. However, no matter how you look at it, we in IT are very good at making our operations efficient.

Perhaps we focus so much on efficiency is because it is easier than being effective. We have more internal control over the factors involved. It doesn't get as messy as those situations where many other groups of users have a role.

There is, however, a downside to this approach: As we become more efficient, we may not have the opportunity to try to become effective.

Imagine trying to convince a CEO to fund a major expenditure for a new systems project when your reputation is for managing IT in a way that is low cost but, candidly, burdensome for your customers. Your CEO's first thought: "Why should I believe that you can properly manage this project, get it done on time and on budget and deliver the requirements I need, when it takes you a week to fix my PC?"

It's hard to refute a reputation like that.

Conversely, if you have shown you get the job done effectively--even if your budgets are not always picture perfect--your boss will be leaning on you to cut costs but more likely to hear you out when you propose a project that could genuinely improve company operations. People tend to be less upset with overpaying for good service than they are about getting poor service even at a low cost.

So err on the side of doing an effective job even with some inefficiencies, even if you have to face the ire of the budget warriors. It is the harder path--but you'll have a clearer line of sight to the summit.

Do you agree? Where do you come down on the efficiency-effectiveness divide?

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

"Get the Balance Right" photo by Marquette La

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