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Efficiency Trumps Frugality in the IT Department

At Facebook, IT issues are easily fixed: Employees just get a new computer. Sound expensive? Here's why it's worth it.
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How do most companies deal with IT problems? They either have in-house support staff or outsourced remote help to either make repairs or walk employees through the steps--the many steps--it can take to get them back to work.

Not so at Facebook. The company's focus on productivity shapes the IT strategy, according to the Wall Street Journal. What do you do when an employee calls a few times about a computer problem? Get that person a brand new machine:

[CIO Tim] Campos said that some companies try to squeeze every last penny out of laptops that aren't working properly and employees bear the burden of that approach. The cost of a laptop, $1,500 to $2,000, is minor in comparison to hampering the productivity of an employee who makes $100,000 per year, he said.

There are vending machines where people can use their employee badges to help themselves to cables, keyboards, headphones, batteries, and the like rather than calling the help desk and waiting for someone to send over the component whose lack keeps the employee from working.

Sure, it's more expensive from one view to run things this way. But if you take a more encompassing view of a business, it can be far more costly to work on saving the nickels, dimes, and even dollars by having a bureaucracy dole out items--after the proper paperwork in triplicate, of course. Companies need to watch expenses obviously, but no business ever made a bundle by keeping down the costs of number 2 pencils.

The mistake that managers and entrepreneurs often make is one of value. To put as much attention into protecting office supplies or low-level computer gear as you put into honing business processes is to mistakenly think that all things are equivalent. But they aren't. That person who makes $100,000, or even $40,000, is probably responsible in some way for multiple times his or her salary in overall revenue. Look at it that way, and a few hours of employee time suddenly don't seem so cheap.

Don't stop with IT, by the way. How much time do you have employees spend on expense reports? Sure, you need to document things for tax purposes, but how much fast and effective can you make the process if you don't assume that each and every employee is out to game the system? (And that's a stick in the old morale to boot.) Do service representatives have to go through layers of management to get a problem corrected for a customer? If so, you've not only lost employee time, but possibly the customer as well.

Every time you put an obstacle in the way of an employee, you've put a roadblock in the path of a business process, because you've diverted people from their jobs to minutiae. Sure, you could assume that employees will put in the extra hours, but in an improving job market, that's almost asking them outright to find a better place to work. Like at a competitor.

Now, there are times when you can go too far in the other direction. For example, there's that well-worn adage that you should pay others to do many ordinary things for you because your time is too valuable. And that is true sometimes. Other times, it isn't. The assumption that your time is too valuable presupposes something better you could do at a particular time. That may not be the case.

Similarly, there may be messy amounts of t-crossing and i-dotting that are necessary to satisfy regulatory requirements or to keep track of what is being done in a company so you don't waste more time and money redoing work.

But all too often, prudence trumps efficiency. Don't let officiousness undermine the important things your company needs to do.

Last updated: May 13, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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