If you're like most CEOs, you know this and nothing more about your tech budget: it’s too high; illustration: Getty If you're like most CEOs, you know this and nothing more about your tech budget: it’s too high; illustration: Getty

Unless you're a techie yourself, you probably see the IT side of your operations as a bit of a black box. You know that technology is crucial to your business, but you have only a vague idea of what your IT people do all day.

It's time you found out. Effectively managing your firm's use of technology would put you ahead of most of the pack. Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm Forrester Research Inc. reports that even though 80% of businesses say IT is from somewhat important to critically important to their businesses, less than half say their IT effectively meets these needs.

Fortunately, there's a powerful free tool you can use to get a handle on technology: the question. If you pose the ones below, you'll quickly discover how well your company is faring and where your tech head needs to focus.

Things are likely to get awkward as you unearth where your firm is falling short. But the point isn't to beat up on your tech manager; it's to reveal how you can work together to reduce service failures and wasted spending, boost efficiency and make it easier for customers to do business with you. And you might be amazed at how many smart ideas your IT head suggests that you'll never hear if you call her only when the server crashes.

How quickly can we fix breakdowns?

Ask your tech manager whether she has the documentation for every server, software and device configuration — the equivalent of "assemble it yourself" instructions for IKEA furniture. Without these, your team can waste precious hours identifying where a failure has occurred, even one that takes just minutes to fix.

Too often, critical information about your IT assets resides in one person's head. What would your IT manager do if one of her techies were to quit tomorrow? Does she know where all the critical passwords are, how your e-mail server is set up and how IT generates those weekly sales reports?

Ask, as well, whether her team is tracking IT-asset failures systematically. How soon would you learn that a glitch with your order-fulfilment software meant you'd failed to ship 15 orders?

To get started reviewing your IT effectiveness, you should ask for weekly reports on the number of tech-related problems, their root cause and the time spent resolving them, plus comparable data for staff requests for IT help. Once your infrastructure becomes more stable, you can drop to biweekly or even monthly reports.

What's our long-term plan?

Is your tech team doing any planning beyond the server upgrade over the next few months? Your IT head should be looking one to three years down the road at issues such as how your firm can use technology to boost sales and improve customer service.

Should we upgrade our CRM system to reduce the time from sales order to delivery? How soon could we allow clients to place repeat orders through our website, rather than making them play phone tag with us?

Ask your IT head to report on the feasibility of various options for each of your key business goals. To cut costs, should you retire old, underused IT assets, or switch to software as a service for certain functions?

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