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10 Ways to Run a Very Lean IT Operation

You have plenty of ideas for IT, but your department’s budget and on-staff skills are limited. What should you do when you’re running a very lean IT group?

Mary E. Shacklett

December 13, 2023

4 Min Read
Lean thinking concept. Cost reduction concept. Business process improvement. Maximising productivity and quality, reducing time and cost.
Paradee Kietsirikul via Alamy Stock

One of my grandmother’s favorite Great Depression stories was about the “bad times” parties that they and their friends held every Sunday. Many had lost everything, but my grandfather had a job with a bakery and was able to bring home day-old lemon pies for a get together, in which friends contributed sausages, potatoes, garden vegetables and whatever else it took to make a meal.

Lean IT operations for a smaller organization, employing one manager and perhaps one or two other IT workers, aren’t sorely challenged like my grandmother and her friends, but they do find themselves in a similar position of trying to “make do.”

How do they succeed?

Here are 10 time-tested strategies:

1. Lean on your vendors. If you don’t have the staff, you can license generic accounting, office and other systems that are vendor-supported and can run the business. Many IT vendors offer affordable support and consulting options for smaller companies. You have system backing from the vendor, but the catch is that you can’t do much customization for your company beyond what the vendors offer.

2. Use the cloud and virtualize. Along these same lines of vendor management of IT, many smaller companies opt to use thin client computing by licensing their office, financial, HR and other systems with cloud vendors. In this way, the internal IT staff doesn’t have to maintain systems or purchase expensive workstations that go beyond thin client machines.

Related:How to Find Success Within an IT Sandbox

3. Search for cooperative IT arrangements. Non-profit organizations often cost- and resource-share their IT. It works like this: A very large company in a particular industry sector obtains the systems needed to run the business and provides the IT support. The large company then contracts with smaller organizations in the same industry sector to provide the smaller outfit with systems and IT support. The strategy works because the large organization needed to purchase and run its IT anyway. The smaller companies can’t afford the IT they need, but they can contract for the IT and IT support with the larger company. This gives the smaller organizations the IT that they need, while the payments from the smaller companies help the large company offset its IT expenses.

4. Deploy on-call consultants. An on-call, pay-per-use consultant can be brought in to address IT issues where the internal staff lacks expertise. These same highly skilled consultants can also be hired to train staff in critical IT needs areas. By using a consultant and paying per engagement, lean IT managers can obtain the skills they require but may not have budget to permanently hire.

Related:Is Now the Perfect Time for CIOs to Grow Their Teams?

5. Hire college grads and students. Many IT managers in small companies work with local colleges that have IT programs. Because schools want their students to have hands-on experience with IT, a small company often can obtain a college student to intern on a small IT project. The internship gives the company an opportunity to see the student in action, which can lead to a full-time employment offer.

6. Use IT retirees. There are some excellent IT professionals who are retired and simply “sitting on the bench” and waiting to be called. One approach some small companies have used with some success is to advertise for IT help in particular tech areas, such as networks or systems. These companies often receive resumes from “old hand” IT retirees who have done these tasks for many years, don’t need much income, but are looking to stay active with IT. These retirees also can be excellent trainers of internal IT staff members.

7. Stay on top of compliance with an attorney or an industry auditor. If you are with a small company in fields such as finance, healthcare, and insurance, you still need to stay current with industry regulations and compliance standards. One way to do this is to retain an attorney on a per-use basis who has expertise in regulations that impact your industry.

Related:2023 IT Salary Report: Pay Increases Despite Economic Pressures

8. Spin down resources and avoid waste. If you have “power workstations” that may have been used in your finance department but are now too slow for that use might be available to be re-deployed in less CPU-intensive areas like proxy servers or casual office use. Or they might even be sold to employees or donated to charities. The goal is to avoid an accumulation of “boat anchor” IT that is just taking up space. It is also important to ensure that equipment and software maintenance contracts with outside vendors are accurate. You don’t need to be paying extra fees for equipment and software assets that are idle.

9. Don’t skimp on security. Whatever you do, make sure that you have adequate budget and resources for IT security. The costs of security beaches are enormous. They can put IT managers on the firing line, and can even drive small companies out of business.

10. Align IT with the business. One hazard that IT managers face is that they are so busy maintaining and trouble-shooting daily IT that they forget to touch base on IT needs with senior management. It is critical to maintain dialogue with upper management so you understand the business priorities, and how IT can best support them. By maintaining an active dialogue with senior officials, you also have an opportunity to request a larger budgetary investment in IT if the IT group is needed to support a new business direction.

About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett

President of Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.

Mary has business experience in Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim. She has a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years. She is listed in Who's Who Worldwide and in Who's Who in the Computer Industry.

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