Three tips to escape the tyranny of IT metrics

Three tips to escape the tyranny of IT metrics

Summary: IT metrics can be a curse against innovation and becoming a strategic partner with the business. Here are steps you can take to escape the tyranny.

TOPICS: CXO, IT Priorities

Many IT organizations rely on metrics to evaluate their own work and incentivize employees around specific goals. Although appearing beneficial, metrics can drive shortsighted behaviors at the expense of innovation and real business value.  

One typical white paper (PDF download) on this topic describes 100 IT performance metrics in categories such as:

  • Infrastructure and operations
  • Applications
  • Staff resources
  • Technology change management
  • Financial management
  • Delivering value

The metrics are a collection of traditional, almost stereotypical, performance standards that describe IT's ability to maintain its systems and deliver core services to users. Example metrics in the list include:

  • Total Infrastructure Incidents (by infrastructure type excluding desktop incidents) 
  • Max Downtime (Peak Hours) 
  • Average Application Response Time
  • Actual Hours by Request Priority
  • Total Backlog Request Hours by Type
  • Total Defects Introduced from Changes
  • Actual Costs-to-date by Application Priority
  • Percent of Hours by Business Priority
  • Cost savings from efficiency improvements

From an IT-centric point of view, metrics such as these make complete sense. By giving the IT organization a single set of standards, metrics do unify execution and foster consistency. Metrics also play a political role: helping IT demonstrate its value and "proving" that IT does important work. In addition, the numbers give non-technical management a yardstick for evaluating IT. 

Despite the obvious convenience and utility of traditional metrics, there are problems. Most significantly, they perpetuate the old status quo of IT as technical services provider devoid of strategic benefit to the organization. Although measures such as server uptime are important, they do not encourage IT to understand the company's business nor do they reward innovation and strategic partnership. By incentivizing cost and efficiency to the exclusion of innovation, such metrics ultimately devalue IT.


Fighting the metrics battle can make even the most hardened CIO weary and tired. Follow these tips to change the role and perception of IT within your organization and escape the tyranny of technical metrics:

1. Embrace the metrics. Operational excellence is the first step to improving IT's credibility and becoming a strategic partner to the business. If you can't deliver projects on time, within budget, and with high customer satisfaction then your team must improve its game. In other words, learn to handle the basics first.

2. Listen and learn from the business. An IT department that achieves operational excellence naturally gains respect from the business. The next step is engaging with operating folks in lines of business to learn about their goals and strategies; become a friend and learn to understand pains and triumphs in the business.

3. Offer solutions to the business. Having established a history of capable execution and then created a relationship with the business, you are now in a position to offer ideas and solutions. Continue to listen thoughtfully but become proactive in proposing ways that IT can help the business accomplish its goals and relieve its pains. Start slowly but relentlessly engage with good ideas in the spirit of cooperation and helpfulness.

In summary, use metrics to establish a baseline for operational excellence but never forget that innovation and strategic partnership with the business are your true goals. Although traditional IT metrics can be useful, they are not a substitute for finding ways to help your company innovate.

Topics: CXO, IT Priorities

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  • How to get the strategic conversation going?

    I like this approach, especially your point that the first step is to master the metrics, not look for ways to sidestep them. That baseline of credibility is absolutely key if you are going to engage in the kind of productive conversations that tips #2 and #3 require. I wonder if you could offer some more specific tips on how to engage people on the operational side - what kinds of questions IT should be asking, for instance. Or is the first step just to signal to them that you are there to listen and help, and then see what they have to say?
    Marlon Feld, WebINTENSIVE Software
  • Accurate software usage metrics

    Accurate software usage metrics is important especially during software audit. Negotiating software licenses is no easy task, as there are numerous legal, monetary and practical issues involved. That is why having a centralized process on maintaining and tracking all relevant software purchasing and usage details is important, to be able to help IT managers to produce and compile accurate, indisputable information, IT metrics to be used on retiring legacy applications and for adjusting license counts more effectively before signing on a new contact with the software vendors.