No IT department can get a real handle on what its costs are without a clear understanding of what IT staff do all day. To measure staff activity comprehensively and accurately means undertaking formal time recording.
"It is a very powerful mechanism to enable you to see how much time and effort you are expending, and where," said Owen Williams, head of IT at property company Knight Frank, which uses time recording for both development and support activities.
"For example, we were surprised how much time and effort goes into support activities. And I was stunned to see how much time we spent on administrative processes. Things like order processing, invoicing and asset management all take more time than perhaps they could," he said.
Time recording can be an effective way of showing that end-user training is worthwhile. "We do not charge users for training them on their IT systems because trained users use their systems better and therefore need less support," said Williams.
Time recording also highlights the different requirements and expectations among different user communities. "Commercial property users are very clear about defining their requirements with us, whereas residential property users need more help defining their requirements, and that is something we would not have been able to quantify without measuring it," said Williams.
Applying time recording to projects also shows how much change requirements can cost. "We now measure ongoing project support costs, and the ongoing change control budget has to be justified by the person accountable for the project," said Williams.
"Time recording has shown that about 60% of IT efforts go on maintaining the status quo and keeping the business going, and about 40% goes on business development activity. My objective is to increase the latter percentage and reduce the former by increasing the efficiency, and thereby reducing the cost of providing operational support. Ultimately we will be delivering more value for money from the firm's IT spend."
Rod Matthews, head of IT at Knowsley Council, is equally enthusiastic about time recording.
"By looking at what our IT staff were doing we got an astonishing amount of data," he said. "Time recording has been pivotal in giving us an explicit understanding of what we are doing for each client. I am convinced that it is an essential element in changing the perceptions that some have of IT people, and adding evidence of our professionalism.
"I implemented time recording in March 2002 as a new approach to previous schemes here," said Matthews. "It is now an essential part of the plan, do, review and improve IT cycle. We can get ad hoc results from the system whenever we want - reports can be run by managers and staff alike - but the most important occasions are the annual budget estimating cycle and the quarterly performance reviews."
Matthews used time recording for two purposes. "Firstly, to justify and disaggregate the charges IT makes to its various business users, and secondly to provide trend analysis of what IT skills are becoming less or more in demand."
The recording methodology involves assigning IT time to a hierarchy of categories, from a top-level allocation through to a user department, technical and application support, right down to which technologies have been used during that time unit.
"We can create customer accounts with improved estimating, and also slice the data to show how much time we have spent on a particular technology," said Matthews.
Users then get an itemised account and IT gets detailed projections of what resources will be needed in the future, with probable utilisation of skills, indications of skill gaps and estimated costs.
"Because users have a detailed and transparent way of seeing just how their IT charges are arrived at, requests for funding are now a rational and open discussion, based on us being able to profile priorities and choices of standard and timescale in a clear way against the cost," said Matthews.
"As well as being linked to the IT department's benchmarking and quality standards programmes, our time recording systems are open to scrutiny and have been the subject of a couple of years of consultation and comment. The methodology is acknowledged to have integrity and the results have been well received.
"Previously, when there was no evidence, every time IT asked for money you could understand why clients were suspicious of the value we made out of their funding."
IT clients are not, however, the only group affected by time recording, and it is essential for it to be implemented in such a way that IT staff are not alienated, said Matthews.
One potential source of conflict is the amount of time it takes to do. "Time recording is onerous," Matthews acknowledged. However, he believes the benefits to IT staff outweigh the burden.
"Staff have been consulted throughout and are very aware that their investment of time is generating evidence for me to use in changing clients' views of IT and gaining additional investment in our service and the IT staff themselves," he said.
"At its most negative, the discrete and complete evidence from time recording acts as a counter to views that IT does not provide good value and therefore could be outsourced.
"But the key value to staff is to provide evidence of any skill gaps, and therefore justify increasing staff numbers, doing more staff training, and getting agreement for more IT funding."
Additional staff benefits come from time recording being able to prove to users how hard IT staff work. "We found that staff were delivering 20% more activity than they were being paid for," Matthews said.
"We were doing a tremendous amount of work for our customers for free. It showed that the previous, arbitrary funding model had become out of date. Although we managed to work within the bottom line figure, we were overcharging some clients and undercharging others.
"For example, we were making a disproportionate charge for web browsing, the cost of which then inhibited the departments in allowing their staff to use the service. Then we found we were undercharging for using the voice and data networks.
"The charging models took some correcting, but because all our users are internal, it was something we could achieve with the support of our finance department," said Matthews.
Conflict may also arise from staff worrying that the exercise is being used to spy on their work levels. "Staff have not given feedback that suggests that they feel they are being spied on," said Matthews. "I cannot imagine that there are no staff who feel this way, but there are also others who are using the time recording data to accelerate their own career progression.
"The beauty of the system is that staff can demonstrate where some work they are doing might be above the grade that they are paid. They can use time recording to help identify where and how much additional effort is being required of them, and use this to help justify how they can be rewarded.
"We make a point of not using the data for detailed individual analysis, unless the member of staff requests it themselves. We might use general trends and key exceptions in discussion with individuals about performance, but this is not the primary purpose of the system and I am confident staff are aware of this.
"There are other ways of dealing with appraisal, and misusing time recording is a sure-fire way of disenfranchising staff and would, therefore, prevent the system from providing all the other benefits it offers.
"It is important to lead by example - I do timesheets, as do all of my management team. You have to ensure that your key people are with you. My management team have owned, created and promoted time recording with me, and since the recording system was designed in-house, that itself helped to ensure buy-in from IT staff."
However, Matthews warned, "Do not underestimate how much staff will need to be convinced, cajoled and constantly reminded to undertake their own timesheets. Do not let the scheme fall apart because staff cannot find the time to do it, because the benefits take some time to mature. The evidence accrual for us took almost a year before we managed to use it to justify more staff."
Knowsley Council is now deploying the latest version of its timekeeping system.
"It uses MS Outlook and takes the appointments and time allocated within the Outlook calendar, automatically coding these to projects, clients and tasks, capturing all the appointments into a timesheet," said Matthews. If, for example, one person invited 10 others to a meeting, just by accepting the appointment, each person automatically has their personal time recording updated.
"It is amazing how easy it is to use, and how much time is saved and additional accuracy is ensured by the new version. It really is another great step forward," said Matthews.