The only way to find out for sure is to track IT capacity -- the number of working hours available in your department. "You have a mixture of both projects that create some kind of improvement and 'keep the lights on' activities," Coombes says. "That's the demand. We have to make sure we have enough capacity to handle those lights-on jobs, and then figure out how to provide capacity for the new projects."
Coombes uses what he calls the "capacity model" to plan IT employees' workloads. "We actually plan for the period before a release what we expect for individual people working on a project, based on their availability," he says. "We plan for a full eight-hour day, but we're not going to book eight hours of development time for a developer. We may need to set aside two hours for administrative tasks and answering questions that come up. So there might be six hours available for software development."
In that case, he says, the developer may be booked to work two hours on one project, two hours on a second and two hours on a third. And that's it. His capacity for the day is used up. "That's the only way to do it," Coombes says. "Otherwise, we tend to overbook people."
"There's often this perception that people who are working eight hours a day have another eight hours available," Handler notes dryly.
The Challenge of Key Employees
Measuring capacity alone isn't good enough, since not all IT employee hours are created equal. "You need to think about it in granular terms," Coombes says. "Not only hours of work but development hours, testing, architecture, project management."
Indeed, the need to find people with both the right skills and enough free time often stops projects in their tracks. And since technical work can often be outsourced, the missing resource is usually project management and/or business expertise.
"Are you comfortable outsourcing the project management function?" asks Bruce Myers, managing director at consulting firm AlixPartners. "Some companies are fine doing that, but others aren't. That is most often the limiting factor."
"You really are constrained not only by hours and functions, but also by the expertise you have in the business context," Coombes says. "That really is the key to understanding what a subject-matter expert is. You may have a developer who's good at development work and an architect who really understands how a system is put together. But to meet the demands of the business, you have to have people who really understand the needs of the business. Those are the people who are hard to find and to hang on to."
That's why Coombes and his team sometimes review the time commitments of specific individuals when planning projects. "We ask who do we need on this project to guarantee it will be successful? A certain key individual might be needed on two or three different projects at the same time, and that creates a constraint that's difficult to deal with."
At the company with the overworked IT department, Gilmore says management had been addressing that issue with a bit of magical thinking: There were only two managers in application development so their names appeared on every project. "Any time anything new came in, one of them got put on it," Gilmore says. "They were listed to all these action items, and one of them alone took six months!"
When IT shops face such situations, there's a danger that people may wind up in roles they can't handle. "Your bottleneck might be the business analyst," says Handler. "Offshore you can get a double Ph.D. for next to nothing to do the technical work, so a lot of companies send that work overseas and keep their business analysts as busy as possible. Then when they get overloaded, they say, 'Let's get Bob to do it. He's in IT finance -- that's like a business analyst.' And then Bob makes a big mess."
The only solution, Handler says, is to know what your department's limitations are and respect them. "Most of the time, the constraining resource is humans, and a good portion of the time it's humans with technical skills. Sometimes it's cash. On rare occasions, I've seen it be conference rooms. But whatever it is, you've got to identify the constraining resource and stop approving things when it looks like you're out of that resource."
At Gilmore's client, the move to setting realistic limits seems to be working. "So far, so good," he says. "Projects are on track, resources are allocated, and people are happy."
The company's IT strategy is set for the rest of 2013, and it's planning for 2014, identifying which projects will need new hires or outside contractors. Meanwhile, business executives are learning to trust IT. "We're being honest with them and saying, 'Based on our workload, we can't get to you till nine months from today.'" Gilmore says. "But then after that period has passed, we're coming back and saying, 'Now we can start on this.' So they see it's working."
Zetlin is a technology writer and co-author of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story, "How to prevent IT department overload" was originally published by Computerworld.