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Using It Budgets to Drive Strategic Outcomes

By Eric Hanson, Vice President Information Technology, Husco

Eric Hanson, Vice President Information Technology, Husco

IT budgets – just the mention of those two words are likely to make many business executives roll their eyes. There is a common perception, perhaps misconception, that Information Technology departments spend frivolously, manage inefficiently, and offer limited operational and strategic value. These common beliefs are in direct contrast to accepted industry analysis which clearly shows that IT investments have a robust, positive impact on revenue generation, talent retention, and profit enhancement.

The United States Bureau of Labor estimates that 70% of United States productivity growth comes from Information Technology investment. What about revenue? The United States Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that the “U.S. digital economy grew at an annual rate of 5.6% between 2006 and 2016 and accounted for 6.5% of current-dollar GDP.” Furthermore, case studies have shown that Information Technologies economies of scale account for 30% of net income for the average S&P 500 company. With statistics like this, some may question why IT spending continues to be a hotly contested topic, and average Information Technology spends, as a percentage of revenue, is just 3.2%.

One challenge continues to be the division of IT spending. Deloitte uses the categorization of Business Operations, Incremental Business Change, and Business Innovation. Gartner uses a slightly less verbose set of terminology, separating the spending categories into Run, Grow, and Transform. Whatever terminology best fits your corporate culture, the definitions are relatively similar.

Business Operations/Run can be defined as the cost of doing business. These are the basic Information Technology functions to support business as usual.

Business Change/Grow is defined as the cost to support business growth and improve existing capabilities, business models, and markets.

Business Innovation/Transform is an investment in developing new business models, entering new markets, and delivering new business capabilities.

Seems straightforward, right? The issue at hand is that spending is predominantly in the Business Operations or Run bucket. Deloitte estimates that 57% of all IT spending goes to this “keep the lights on” category, and it is often difficult for business executives to understand and derive value from operational spending clearly. The question then becomes, how can IT leaders best communicate and align Information Technology investment with business strategy and value? It starts with a clear, budgeting process.

Let’s start with an important distinction – capital budgets versus operational budgets. “According to Gartner IT Key Metrics Data, the ratio of total IT spending across all industries over the past ten years is 30% capital and 70% operating expense.“

IT business services have proven to be effective in tying together good budgeting process, budget management, and value delivery

Capital budgets, as the name would suggest, are planned investments that qualify for capitalization and subsequent depreciation over several years. Capital budgets are often easier for business executives to understand as they are typically tied to discrete projects and stated outcomes. An example of a capital project is the purchase of an on-site CRM solution - including the software, hardware to run the solution, and labour to implement. There are established capitalization rules that your Finance team will use to provide investment-type guidance.

Expense budgets, on the other hand, tackle “everything else.” If it isn’t capitalized, it is put in the expense budget. Expense budgets include things like subscription services for cloud offerings, non-capitalized labour, travel, or software and hardware maintenance. As previously stated, expense budgets typically make up most of an Information Technology budget, including but not limited to salaries and benefits, hardware and software, telecommunications and connectivity, contracting and consulting, and depreciation expense.

But categorization of budgets is just half of the equation. The second half is the approach to budgeting. There are several, but for simplicity, we will focus on just four. These approaches will be titled as Incremental, Activity Based, Value Proposition, and Zero-Based. A brief description of each type follows.

“INCREMENTAL BUDGETING takes last year’s actual figures and adds or subtracts a percentage to obtain the current year’s budget.” This budgeting model is popular because of its simplicity but can also perpetuate inefficiencies. In this model, there is no requirement to optimize spending. If a manager, for example, gets a 5% budget increase each year, there is a risk that they will take that increase without optimizing spend to deliver greater value. Adding to this point, it offers the opportunity for “budgetary slack”. Because a budget may naturally rise, it provides the temptation for a manager to overstate their budget requirement so that they can post a favourable budget position, each year. Finally, this budgeting model may ignore many external factors such as inflation, changes in regulation, tariffs, or other external pressures, constraints, or opportunities.

“ACTIVITY-BASED BUDGETING is a top-down budgeting approach that determines the amount of inputs required to support the targets or outputs set by the company.” For example, a company may set a revenue target of 500 million dollars. Using the activity-based model, the leaders of that company will then budget for the activities that will deliver on the stated revenue target. Activity-based budgeting is popular because it better aligns planned to spend with organizational strategy.

“VALUE PROPOSITION BUDGETING is a mindset about making sure that everything that is included in the budget delivers value for the business.” This budgeting strategy aims at negating budget inefficiencies. In this model, budget owners start by asking themselves a few important questions:

“Why is this amount included in the budget?”

“Does the item create value for the customers, staff, or stakeholders?”

“Does the value of the item outweigh its cost.”

The final budgeting model is ZERO-BASED BUDGETING. “Zero-based budgeting starts with the assumption that all departmental budgets are zero and must be rebuilt from scratch.” Each budget owner must be able to justify each component of their budget. There is no automatic approvals and only budget items deemed crucial to successful and profitable operations are approved. This model is good when there is an “urgent need for cost containment.” However, this model can be more complex and challenge essential operating expenses rather than evaluate discretionary expense.

Even with a clear distinction between Capital and Expense budgets, categorization of Run, Grow, and Transform, and even with a clear budgeting process, it is sometimes hard for IT leaders to make sure that other business executives view the IT investment through a value lens. For this reason, it is recommended that you divide your operating budgeted into distinct IT business services. This means “defining IT services in business terms” – without the technical jargon often associated with IT. So, what exactly is an IT business service?

Gartner defines this as “a collection of actions performed by IT professionals that provides a measurable benefit to a consumer outside of the IT organization. The consumer must clearly understand and value the benefits of each IT business service and must control the level of consumption.” An IT business service is developed by developing an IT BOM (Bill of Materials), so that a standard cost may be established for each service offering. These services can and should be benchmarked against external sources to ensure an appropriate price to value ratio. Importantly, the business now controls consumption. They consume as much of the IT business service as their business dictates and effectively control their cost of IT.

IT business services have proven to be effective in tying together good budgeting process, budget management, and value delivery. When done correctly, it can change the conversation around IT spend and allow Information Technology teams to become a strategic partner focused on delivering improved business outcomes.

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