RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: IT departments are often overworked and underfunded

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Why do trucking companies overload their trucks, when they know they’ll damage the very highways they need for their livelihoods? Why do people keep defiantly watering their lawns in d r o u g h t – s t r i c ke n areas? Why do we buy cheap goods from discount retailers when we know they were made in sweatshops? And why do employees download streaming audio and video, when they’re repeatedly warned that these things turn high-speed networks into slugs?

Because, in all those cases, a few people are getting loads of benefit, while the true costs are either spread around too thinly to see, or are not being paid by the beneficiary at all.

In 1968, an ecologist named Garrett Hardin wrote an essay about this very matter, “The Tragedy of the Commons” ( Hardin points out that the old-style village commons, a greenspace shared by everybody for grazing livestock, would inevitably be used up because individuals had strong incentives to increase their hoofed property and use the free grass to feed them, at the expense of those with slower-growing numbers.

The problem is a familiar one to economists. When you disconnect cost from benefit, there’s no incentive to conserve. That’s why people leave their trash in public parks and on their way home buy a couple of pirated movies.

The same sort of thing happens in many companies with IT departments, and it’s a constant source of bewildering friction between IT and the business units. From the IT perspective, they’re taking care of a common resource, much like the village green or a public park. Just as cities chronically understaff the parks department, companies usually understaff IT. So as business demand grows, IT is frequently impoverished, struggling to keep up. Other business units don’t seem to know or care how much time and treasure it takes to keep the bytes running.

IT techies run into this issue constantly. When users back up their hard drives, they include the gigabytes of music they listen to on their headphones during the day. Backup storage is expensive, and the labor cost of maintaining the storage can be even greater. Network bandwidth is similarly pricey, and when it’s consumed by exchanging pictures of grandkids and video from CNN, the whole thing slows down, angering all the users at once. Company intranets become battlegrounds, as departments compete for scarce real estate on the pages. Users click on wormy e-mail attachments, endangering the integrity of the entire system, despite being warned not to.

The problem is that the benefits to one part of the company are completely disconnected from the costs another part has to pay in labor and hardware. Then techies all too often respond to users trampling the grass and leaving garbage in the park by getting snarky at the least provocation, sending pharmacies scrambling to keep blood pressure medication in stock.

This unplugging of benefits from costs wasn’t always the case. In the early days of computing, a single monolithic computer system served an entire company, or even several companies, and each user was put on the clock the moment his “job” started running. Cliff Stoll, writer of the techno-detective novel “The Cuckoo’s Egg,” discovered a hacker in his Berkeley lab’s computers because two accounting programs differed by pennies.

I’m not sure why this cycle of accountability was broken, but it has had disastrous consequences for IT. Factories are ramped up with both capital and labor when demand increases, and often quickly. IT isn’t. Most IT departments have a lagging growth curve, making the business frustrated and IT ineffective.

Part of the problem is that executives understand the need for stitching or metalcutting machinery, but don’t comprehend immediately why IT needs upgrades and shiny new servers. IT has to beg for money just a little harder, making it more likely to be shooed away. Yet, this condition exists in an era when tracking specific users is easy.

Perhaps what IT departments need to do is what outside companies do-build in a base charge that’s enough to make a good environment for everyone, but also charge commensurate with usage. Reconnect benefit and cost, and the business side can then take its pick: lower usage or pay more to the parks department for more services. IT needs would suddenly become less hazy and more defensible. The business would be more sympathetic. Some IT departments do this already, but many don’t.

At the very least, IT should track usage so departments can see how much of the commons they’re grazing on. If business units were charged for every e-mail, every byte of stored data, every new Web page, managers would surely be more respectful of the equipment and the people who provide them.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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