Scott Engelman

"What's in your wallet?" is the oft-heard commercial slogan uttered by displaced Viking warriors and other characters hawking the value of a nationally marketed credit card in a popular television commercial. The question's implication is:  "Are you getting what you are paying for?"

While most IT departments aren't funded by credit cards, the question is still apropos: Are you getting what you are paying for from your IT department?

To paraphrase another credit card commercial, technology, like credit, can be "priceless" and add value to an organization. There is no arguing the impact that technology can have. Many of us "don't leave home without it," or similarly, can't imagine working without it. The value of IT is never more evident than when a system is unexpectedly down.

Categories of IT Departments

A first step in determining whether you are getting value from your IT department is to determine what kind of IT department your organization has. Knowing what kind of IT department your organization has developed over time will help you understand the behavior of your IT staff and the spending habits perpetuated by your organization's leadership. There are four categories of IT departments: commodity, utility, partner, and enabler.

Commodity IT departments. These are no-frills, stripped-down types of operations whose efforts are focused primarily on providing services at the lowest cost possible. "Cheapest" is the mantra of a commodity IT department, and it provides just enough of a level of service to be barely adequate. Cost control is the department's driver ("used equipment accepted here"), and investment in IT is done on a project-by-project basis. Purchases are made for the lowest price possible, and cost justification is avoided, because such an exercise takes time and time is money, and the commodity IT department is not going to waste money justifying the fact that it simply bought the cheapest stuff. Commodity IT has no grand plans of being recognized as a leader or being on the cutting edge of IT service. It stays within the confines of its business, providing limited technical support and little else. Late-night heroics are the technology equivalent of duct tape for this group. With commodity IT departments, expectations as well as costs should be low.

Utility IT departments. Moving up one level on the evolutionary IT food chain, services of these departments are provided at a higher level for a slight increase in cost. Investment in infrastructure is functional, but not stellar. Utility IT comes with all the reliability and excitement of … well … a public utility. Like commodity IT, its focus is on cost, but this type of department does not wage a war with vendors for the lowest price possible or rely on individual acts of heroism. Executive management's view of the utility IT department is it needs to be efficient in execution and predictable in performance. Organizations that rely on utility IT departments are paying for a higher level of reliability that commodity IT departments can't guarantee.

Partner IT departments. These departments show better IT traction for execution beyond the walking-and-chewing-gum-without-stumbling stage of utility IT. Partner IT departments demonstrate the value of technological collaboration by selectively working with others outside of IT to spread the gospel of automation. They cast their influence wide enough to cross business unit boundaries and, with their advanced abilities to repress techno-babble, actually add value to multidisciplinary teams within their organizations. Aligned with their organization's vision, partner IT departments not only can get the anchor unstuck from the snag, but also can help row in the right direction. Their mantra goes beyond expense containment and keeping the lights on. Partner IT departments are interested in simplistic notions of business growth and market share-terms that are esoteric to commodity and utility IT departments.

Enabler IT departments. These departments not only row in the right direction, but also actually help  to chart the course, perhaps even steering the ship-mutinous thoughts to the other IT categories. Enabler IT departments give their organizations new capabilities thanks to intense collaboration with business leaders, a focus on outcomes, and a highly refined sense of where rigidity in technology should be avoided. Investment in infrastructure approaches common sense, but usually spares no expense to provide the ability to technologically "get there from here." Strategy is driven by the organization's vision rather than the vision of its vendors. Justification for expenditures is enlightened, not draconian. Enabler IT departments have moved so far up the evolutionary scale that they are able to effectively interact with not only every business unit in the organization, but also the organization's clients. Their marching orders are to enable the organization's success and, while they are at it, become industry leaders in their respective fields.

In the world of medicine, sometimes you need a bandage, sometimes you need an ambulance, and sometimes you need a Medivac helicopter. It is surprising how often a healthcare organization's vision statement calls for sophisticated leading-practice diagnostic and treatment technologies, yet its IT department is the equivalent of a wooden tongue depressor. Granted, there will always be a need for the wooden tongue depressor in health care, but not when a serious illness calls for an MRI. Having the right IT capabilities that match your business or organizational needs is often the difference between fulfilling your mission or not.

Finding the Right Fit

So which of these IT profiles would most closely match your healthcare organization's IT needs? Which type of IT department do you currently have? Is it a good fit, or a mismatch? Your IT department needs to reflect where your organization is today and where it will be tomorrow.

What's in your IT department?


 Scott Engelman is a healthcare IT industry executive, IBM Global Business Services, Colorado Springs, Colo. (sengelm@us.ibm.com). 

Publication Date: Saturday, September 01, 2007

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