Managing IT in a downturn: beyond cost cutting

Looking to slash your IT investments? Consider the possibility that targeted ones might generate savings and revenues exceeding what you could save through cost cutting.

Looking to slash your IT investments? Consider the possibility that targeted ones might generate savings and revenues exceeding what you could save through cost cutting.

Economies around the world are slowing down, and companies are looking for ways to trim spending and improve the bottom line. Although information technology often represents a small fraction of the corporate cost base, senior executives inevitably turn their attention to IT budgets for substantial contributions. Yet in some instances, IT investments deliver more value to a company's top and bottom lines by making a business more efficient and increasing revenues than any savings gained from traditional IT cost cutting.

IT has come a long way over the past decade. Budgets grew rapidly during the dotcom boom and the run-up to Y2K, then declined drastically when the bubble burst. Over the following years, CIOs, working with business unit leaders, improved the performance of IT departments by streamlining application portfolios, reducing infrastructure costs, improving governance, consolidating suppliers, and outsourcing many activities.

Much has changed across the business landscape as well. Technology now meshes tightly with operations in ways that were not possible a decade ago the apparel maker Li & Fung, for instance, uses IT to manage supply chains with a network of more than 7,500 different suppliers. At the same time, e-business, once a buzzword, now forms a part of the corporate status quo. IT capabilities have fostered new sales channels, defined new customer segments, and even helped create new business models.

These factors make reductions in IT spending more complicated than ever. Simplistic cuts, applied across the board, may endanger critical business priorities from sales support to customer service. That potent message should resonate even among corporate officers anxious to find quick savings.

CIOs, of course, should continue to make their operations more efficient and to reduce costs, especially in areas that show signs of bloat. Discipline tends to slip during a lengthy upturn in spending such as the one that has occurred in recent years. Reducing pockets of unproductive expenditure will bring savings that help meet corporate cost targets.

Still, except in the most dire circumstances, turning off technology investments during a downturn is counterproductive. When business picks up, you may lack critical capabilities. Besides, many technology investments can improve profitability in the short to medium term.

When business and IT executives jointly take an end-to-end look at business processes, the resulting investments can have up to ten times the impact of traditional IT cost reduction efforts.

The trick is to scan for opportunities such as improving the customer experience, reducing revenue leakage, and improving operating leverage.

Creating impact with technology

Such an effort begins with a survey of operations for areas likely to produce near-term revenue and efficiency gains. In our work across a variety of industries, we have identified a number of ways technology investments can have a substantial impact (Exhibit 2).

  • Manage sales and pricing. Develop insights into customer segments and improve pricing discipline to increase revenues without increasing prices.
  • Optimize sourcing and production. Rethink supply chains and logistics to improve the scheduling of deliveries and inventory management.
  • Enhance support processes. Improve the management and use of field forces (such as installers and field technicians) and of customer support centres.
  • Optimize overhead and performance management. Sharpen awareness of risk exposure and improve decision-making and performance-management processes.

To extract value from these opportunities, our experience shows, companies must make managerial improvements in two areas.

Developing new insights

Few companies have succesfully capitalized on the explosion of data in recent years. Often this information, residing in separate IT systems or spread across different business units, has never been mined for insights that could add value. Small teams of business and IT staffers can find opportunities by combining a detailed understanding of business processes with straightforward analyses of consolidated data sets. When such teams use the data to compare best practices across regions or to identify under- and over-served customers, for example, they can identify hotspots of revenue leakage.

Optimizing processes

As IT becomes tightly integrated with processes, breaks in workflows often get built into systems and diminish productivity. Shining a light on these areas with an integrated view of operations and technology may well surface problems, which often involve outdated processes, manual steps, redundancies, and bottlenecks. An 80/20 approach can highlight a modest number of activities that, when corrected, deliver a disproportionate amount of value. Companies can usually apply these fixes in short order. At times, new systems may be needed, but modest enhancements or targeted work-arounds often suffice: an additional error check in a credit application, for instance, can reduce the need to rework incorrectly entered data. Adjustments to workflow processes may also promote greater adherence to corporate sales-discounting and bidding policies.

Applying these methods

Applied in high-opportunity areas, these two levers can not only make a short-term contribution to earnings but also build a foundation for future performance. Two cases illustrate this approach...

About the Authors

James Kaplan, a principal in McKinsey's New York office, leads the technology infrastructure practice for McKinsey's global IT group. Johnson Sikes is a consultant in the New York office. Roger Roberts, a principal in the Silicon Valley office, leads the firm's IT strategy practice.

This article was originally published in The McKinsey Quarterly.

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