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What justifies network spending? Two things, according to CIOs.
The first is the money to maintain the infrastructure that was justified by projects in the past. The other is money for new projects, and they must deliver benefits large enough to meet the CFO’s target return on investment.
The top business justification for any new tech project is productivity improvement. My data says that only about two-thirds of workers in jobs that could be empowered by network improvement have actually been given optimal access to information. In some job classifications, only 40% of workers have been empowered. Mobile workers, ones who regularly operate away from offices, are often empowered only part of the time.
What kind of improvement could empower workers? More information, better information, faster information? There are a lot of subtle possibilities, but the one that gets the most attention and is usually the easiest to align with specific products or services is simply high-speed connectivity. Most companies have put branch locations on an MPLS VPN, but over two-thirds of enterprises say that they cannot put at least a quarter of their remote sites on the VPNs for reasons of cost or availability, and MPLS is useless for mobile workers. Getting everyone connected might look like a good productivity project, but before you get your project request started, you’ll need to do some prep on your business case or you risk rejection.
The productivity benefit of a network project is based on two factors. First, how much worker time is actually saved by the change? You can usually gather this through time analysis of the jobs you’re impacting, and most network planners get this data. The second factor is the one that’s often missed, or misused, and it’s the unit value of labor factor.
The amount of time that information empowerment saves is likely related directly to the information content of each worker’s job. That doesn’t mean how much time a worker spends on the computer, but on the value of information in supporting productivity. If a worker already has all the information they need, then it’s doubtful that further information empowerment will pay back. Only about half of all workers are “empowerable” based on information needs, so enterprises that want to assess productivity gains to be expected through empowerment usually start by asking workers what data would help them be more efficient. The more helpful data is found, the more network empowerment can improve productivity.
The dollar value of that productivity improvement is what CFOs will look for, and that depends on the unit value of labor. For people whose jobs involve producing something, the unit value of labor is the burdened compensation rate for the workers involved, meaning salary plus benefits. For jobs in sales, many organizations will use the sales production number, which is the sales dollars generated per unit time. Where unit value of labor of a group is high, empowering them via network improvement will earn a high return, so your project planning should focus on groups of people whose collective unit value of labor is highest to get the best ROI possible.
I had a chance to review a dozen productivity projects presented to CFOs over the last two years and that were rejected. What I found was that in every single case, the project failed because it focused on sites and not workers. In one case, the project proposed to provide VPN access to 81 new sites, and it didn’t deliver the target ROI so it was shelved. The company should have looked a bit deeper. Suppose it focused only on the sites with the highest unit value of labor? Picking the top 35 in terms of unit value of labor would have reduced the benefits by less than 20% and the cost of MPLS VPN connectivity by almost half. That would have met the CFO targets, but only barely, and it wouldn’t address mobile workers.
What would be ideal is a single strategy to empower workers in sites that can’t be connected via MPLS and mobile workers. There is such a strategy, and it’s a familiar technology that’s misused so often it’s arguably over-hyped—the secure access service edge or SASE. SASE makes use of the cheapest high-performance access technology available, one that’s nearly universal: the internet.
SASE is a cloud component that offers two options for small-site support; you can include SD-WAN in it and put the sites on the company VPN, or you can use it without SD-WAN (sometimes that’s called SSE or secure service edge) to link smaller sites and mobile workers to a cloud front-end, and from there ride the cloud connection to the data center.
If broadband internet and SASE were adopted in the project example I referenced earlier, the same 35 sites could have been connected for half the cost, even if either wireless redundancy or multiple ISPs were used to maximize reliability. The resulting project would have blown away the CFO’s ROI target. The top 50 sites by unit value of labor could also have been empowered and still beat ROI guidelines significantly. And if redundancy were eliminated beyond the top 50 sites, the entire 81 sites could have been added to the VPN and still easily met CFO targets.
SASE has been around for a couple of years, and if it’s such a good productivity-enhancing strategy, why aren’t we seeing a bunch of new productivity projects being approved? According to enterprise CIOs, SASE is promoted by vendors as a security product and not a connectivity enhancer, and as such it’s lumped into a totally different budget where empowerment and productivity aren’t the issue. The CIOs are admitting to project tunnel vision, often created by responding to vendor initiatives rather than doing in-house project planning. Moral: Look for all the benefits of a proposed tech project, not just the obvious ones.
There are few ways for networks to enhance productivity that are more direct, more easily quantified, than empowering workers in locations currently off the VPN. There are fewer that can be implemented as easily and with as much worker-targeting precision as cloud-hosted SASE. Worker empowerment and VPN cost control are both priorities in 2023, and this is the tech solution that can realize them. If you’re looking for a way to get some network funding in 2023, this area is hard to beat.