Small Business CIO – Manager of Constraints

I received quite a few positive responses to my Small Business CIO post last week so I thought I’d continue the topic this week.

Over the last few days I’ve been reading ReWork (affiliate link) by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson from 37Signals. Great book BTW…go pick it up now. In that book, the authors wrote something to the effect of (I’m paraphrasing here):

Constraints are advantages. Limited resources will always exist and force you to make do with what you have. There’s no room for wasted effort and/or resources. These resources force you to be creative.

Great concept.

Constraints exist everywhere in the world, but can readily be found in the world of the Small Business IT Group. CIO’s in small business have always had to worry about money and resources but the latest recession has forced even more constraints on them.

So…small business IT groups can complain about the constrains or try to work around them by looking at creative methods to address their issues with the resources at hand.  Constraints require a bit of Creative Thinking.

I have an example that shows this type of creativity. Read on.

Creative Approaches to Constraints

Last year, I spoke with the CIO of a small company who has a team of 3 full-time IT folks working for him. All were fully loaded and were putting in many hours of overtime to maintain the current IT systems. Quite a few projects had to be postponed because his staff was just too busy and there was no money to hire the work out.

During our conversation, I asked him to outline his current system setup. It surprised me to hear that he has quite a large number of systems and platforms for a small IT shop. They had a SQL Server Cluster, an Exchange server and quite a few other servers handling various network and storage task. All these servers were housed in an impressive data center built and managed by his organization.

My first response to him was to ask why he felt he needed the data center…that’s a huge expense that could be offloaded. He explained the reasons behind the data center and, based on his description, it made sense to have this capacity in-house rather than outsourced (there were a lot of privacy issues plus other reasons).

We dove into reasons for each platform and I quickly realized that the Exchange Server and Support was taking cycle time from his team. One of his team members spent an inordinate amount of time managing (and fixing) that one platform. I dug into the specifics and realized he was running Exchange 2003 on an antiquated server.

The CIO knew the Exchange server needed to be replaced but just hadn’t really looked into the economics of keeping it versus replacing it (or outsourcing it). We ran some quick calculations and he realized just how much that system was costing him.

I offered to put together a few options for him to replace the Exchange Server. The options were:

  1. Replace with Exchange 2007 w/ Outlook 2007 + new hardware + backups + higher availability + install services – cost ~$27K
  2. Outsource Email to a hosted Exchange company – cost ~$3K to $6K per year
  3. Outsource and Migrate to Gmail – cost ~$2500 per year + ~$2K for migration

Needless to say, Options 2 & 3 were preferred based on initial outlay of capital.

They chose to move to a MS Exchange hosted solution for roughly $5K per year after realizing just how much time the Exchange admin was spending supporting and managing Exchange.   After doing a time study, we found this person was spending roughly 50% of their time working on Exchange and email issues.

By moving to the Hosted Exchange, this small business was able to realize a savings of ~$20K in the first year by going with an outsourced solution….not bad.  In addition, this business can use the Hosted Exchange for 5 years and still come out ahead.

But…that isn’t the end of the story. That simple act of outsourcing Exchange freed up one of his team members to pick up other projects….not only did he save money but he gained a resource. A badly needed resource that he wouldn’t have been able to hire from the outside.

An additional advantage: this CIO was able to take that $20K per year savings and put it toward three new projects that were desperately needed for growing the business.

Rethinking Constraints

While the big constraint for the above CIO was money (he didn’t have enough to hire more people ore outsource projects), the money constraint isn’t the easiest to solve.

So what did we do to solve his problem?  We did what any consultant would suggest you do…spend money!   BTW – before you get up in arms about the consulting barb…remember…I’m the consultant in this story 🙂

We had to look at the problem differently.  Many people might just complain about lack of money or resources but this CIO had the brainpower and nerve to make the decision to do what needed to be made.

We spent money to overcome the constraint of not having enough money. The reason this made sense was because the old Exchange Server was taking up half of an IT staff members time, which was equivalent to ~$25K per year. The CIO spent $5K to get a return of $25K in freed up time.

By outsourcing something that wasn’t a core competency, the CIO was able to overcome his constraint (money), even though it actually required him to spend money (his major constraint).

Constraints will always exist in business.  Especially in the small business.

The Small Business CIO must be able to understand the constraints imposed on their business and find ways to overcome them. This will require innovative and creative approaches to running IT shops.

Just another reason why the CIO of tomorrow must move away from a pure technical role and into a role that requires strategic & creative thinking.  In addition, you’ve got a to have a bit of courage too to be able to make the decisions necessary to address your constraints.

9 responses to “Small Business CIO – Manager of Constraints”

  1. Published: : Small Business CIO – Manager of Constraints #CIO #leadership

  2. #baot Reading: Small Business CIO – Manager of Constraints

  3. Reading: Small Business CIO – Manager of Constraints #baot

  4. Simon Stapleton Avatar

    It takes bravery to turn to outsourcing for something that a CIO would have traditionally considered as a core-competency of their function, such as the Exchange Server, at least it did for the early adopters. In business today, it's interesting to see CIOs make these decisions; it does suggest that they now consider their position more central to the business, rather than at the head of a stove-pipe. Hoorah. It wasn't long ago that this would have been herecy.

    1. Eric D. Brown, D.Sc. Avatar

      Simon – thanks for commenting….for some reason I missed your comment.

      Agreed…it wasn't long ago that this type of activity would be heresy. Glad to see those times are changing.

  5. great insights into #smb real world challenges. Small Business #CIO – Manager of Constraints via @ericdbrown

  6. […] business was asked of me by an acquaintance after she read two of my Small Business CIO articles: Small Business CIO – Manager of Constraints and Outsourcing, Value & Capabilities – Priorities for Small Business […]

  7. […] said before that email can easily be outsourced and/or moved to the cloud and I still believe that.  Email, although a critical app, can be […]

  8. […] written before about the constraints that hit small businesses when it comes to IT.   Constraints are everywhere, but one area that I’ve always found them is within the […]