Low IT Quality Has High Costs

Opinion: Uptime percentage is a grossly inadequate measure of quality.

You have no idea how much youre paying for the inconsistent performance, unproductive complexity and inadequate management facilities that afflict your enterprise information systems. Id normally couch a statement like that with a "probably," but I think I can state that as a fact.

When IT systems are available to their users, functioning as designed, most people put that uptime in the numerator and divide by 31,536,000 seconds a year (remember, p seconds are a nanocentury). If the system is down for only an hour a year, thats 99.99 percent quality, right?

Dangerously wrong.

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Useful measurement of IT quality barely begins with uptime. Consider a system thats up all year except for a scheduled 1-hour shutdown at 2 a.m. on New Years Day. Compare that to a system that goes down for at least a minute, without any warning, an average of once a week. Both of those systems would have 99.99 percent uptime, but wouldnt you say that one of them was considerably lower-quality?

Distribution and predictability of downtime are important measures, and its not statistical rocket science to measure those attributes.

Even when a system is predictably available, its behavior can still reduce the quality of what it provides. A few weeks ago, my banks Web page showed my checking account having $400 less in it than my own balancing act said it should; after spending half an hour rechecking statements and recrunching numbers, I went back to that Web site to send a customer service inquiry.

The first thing I saw was an updated list of cleared checks, including some that apparently left my account balance well before they arrived on my list of transactions. Was the system up? Yes. Was it providing good quality? I wouldnt have said so at the time.

Measures of quality have to go beyond whether the system is meeting specifications to ask if the system is meeting user expectations.

Perhaps at this point youre nodding your head, pleased that Ive yet to prove my claim that youre not measuring quality as thoroughly as you should be. Perhaps youre already getting meaningful summaries of service disruption and tracking them back to their cause, and youre already auditing session completion and user satisfaction reports to see where a system may have gaps or dead ends. Youre sure that youre on top of things.

Im still going to assert that your costs of poor IT quality are mostly unknown because all the things Ive mentioned so far are just the tip of the iceberg. Thats surely an important part, as all whove seen "Titanic" can attest, but the deeply submerged costs of poor quality are growing and are coming steadily closer to the surface.

Submerged cost No. 1 is storage thats out of control. If you bought a batch of new PCs and found that half their hard drive space had been lost to bad sectors one year later, would you feel that youd bought high-quality gear? Id bet that half or more of whats filling your hard drives is junk files, ranging from outdated documents to spam-filled e-mail archives. Youre paying to store and back up that garbage.

Submerged cost No. 2 is inadequate user training. Youve probably spent hundreds of dollars per employee on packaged applications with time-saving features that are unknown and unused. Youre paying for the tools and then paying people to do things the hard way. Dont do both.

Submerged cost No. 3 is distraction. A well-designed enterprise portal doesnt just get people the information they need more quickly; it also reduces the likelihood that theyll spend an hour or more each day reading news, doing personal chores or simply regaining task focus after an open-ended Web search. Youre paying for the bandwidth they use and the time they lose.

The cost of grooming storage is much greater than the cost of e-mail filtering and enterprise content management. The cost of on-the-job learning far exceeds the cost of appropriate user training. The cost of letting people search for what they need is huge compared with the cost of giving it to them. Those high costs arent budget line items—so make them action items.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

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