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How To Develop a Cost Allocation Program for IT Services
IT resources are one of the most significant support costs in modern
organizations, and must be correctly allocated to entities like departments,
business units, and projects. Use this guide to help you fully understand the
concept of IT services cost allocation, where it is best applied, and issues
involved in rolling out an actual allocation system.
This article was originally published by Info-Tech Research Group. Copyright (c) 1998-2008 Info-Tech Research Group. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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Most of the focus on managing organizational resources tends to be
on those resources that support the organization's mission or revenues.
However, resources are also used in a supporting role, facilitating processes
that contribute to these goals. IT resources have become one of the most
significant support costs in modern organizations, along with human resources
costs and facilities costs. What we will see is that it is important that such
IT costs are correctly allocated to entities like departments, business units,
projects or contracts, or even to various products and services. This is to
enable better control of these costs, improved inventory management, better
decision-making, enhanced measurement and management of profit and
loss at various levels, and, in certain cases, compliance with contracts that
require strict cost tracking.
This report will define the concept of IT services cost allocation and present
some common reasons why costs should be allocated. A decision to embark
upon a program of IT services cost allocation may itself involve additional
costs and effort, and must be made with a full understanding of the benefits
of this effort. The primary focus of this report will be on those things you should
consider when rolling out an allocation system for IT services costs, and what
issues normally arise when doing so. It excludes technical discussion of the
relative merits of various allocation methodologies, which involves advanced
management accounting knowledge and should be made in conjunction
with accountancy and taxation professionals. However, concepts that will be
useful when dealing with these professionals will be discussed. Finally, we will
describe common challenges in doing so and present some tips for meeting
The scope of this report is restricted to IT as an internal service department,
meaning that the primary or even exclusive rationale of IT is to provide
services to other departments, rather than to supply a product or service
externally for profit. This includes instances where IT is part of a shared
service center concept. Where the "business is IT" (a software company, a
telecommunications carrier, and so on) costs will be treated differently.
What is IT Services Cost Allocation?
Cost allocation is the assignment or re-assignment of costs from one
organizational "activity" to another. In the context of IT services cost
allocation, an activity is an event that causes consumption of IT resources. An
activity can be associated with:
- A department, or group of departments.
- An individual.
- A division, cost center, or profit center.
- A legal entity.
- A product or service.
- A project.
- A contract.
In the context of this report, the entity from which costs will be allocated
will normally be the IT Services department(s), and to which costs will be
allocated the various business departments or projects. IT Services can
include the following functions, and possibly others:
- IT management and administration.
- Help desk/call center.
- Network design and maintenance.
- E-mail support.
- Server and host management.
- Database administration.
- Data center hosting.
- Hardware maintenance.
- Software development and maintenance.
- Software testing and quality assurance.
- Software configuration management and deployment.
- IT security.
- Business continuity/disaster recovery.
- Technical documentation.
These functions may or may not be distinct, and may or may not be situated
within one organizational unit, legal entity, or even geography. They may
involve both internal staff costs as well as external consultancy costs.
IT Services costs may also be in the form of a wider-ranging project, which can
have a budget and cost structure distinct from departmental breakdowns
implied above. For example, an application rationalization initiative may
have its own funding and budget, with implications for applications software
costs, database costs, and server costs. Many organizations had "Year 2000"
projects whose cost structures were separate from IT department costs, but
needed to be allocated anyway.
We will define some other terms that are helpful in understanding cost
- A cost is the value of money, time and resources associated with an
activity (defined below) or a purchased good or service.
- An activity is an organizational process that adds value and consumes
- A cost driver is an activity that causes costs to be incurred.
- A cost pool is a grouping of overhead costs related to a specific
- A cost driver rate is calculated as the cost pool for the activity divided
by the cost driver volume
- A key distinction always made when discussing costs is between direct
and indirect costs. Direct costs are easily identified with a single
activity, whereas indirect costs cannot be identified with a single
activity. Materials and direct labor costs are often considered direct
costs, whereas overhead charges like data center rent, license costs,
and management labor costs are indirect.
- A cost base represents the accumulated direct costs used to distribute
- Overhead costs are administrative charges like taxes, rent or insurance
that cannot be attributed to any specific activity, but are necessary
for the organization to operate.
- A cost allocation plan is a description of the procedures, methods,
and tools that will be used in identifying, measuring, and allocating
- An allocation itself is the division and distribution of pooled costs.
Why Allocate Costs?
A "Do-Nothing" Approach
Why allocate costs at all—aren't such costs nothing more than "funny
money"? After all, someone pays "real" IT costs like hardware costs, software
license fees, and programmer salaries no matter what—the choice of which
organizational department or project pays is ultimately revenue-neutral.
Indeed, a "do nothing" strategy of purely centralized and non-allocated
IT service costs is one option that is obviously cheaper and easier than
implementing cost allocation. Of course, doing nothing hinders effective
benchmarking of IT costs versus service quality and will not bring the benefits
of allocation described below. However, such a strategy of not allocating IT
service costs can sometimes be successful in the following instances:
- Smaller organizations or smaller IT service organizations, where IT
service costs and service levels are sufficiently visible to management
for them to easily evaluate.
- As a short-term option to study IT costs prior to implementing an
- As a question of timing, where cost allocation occurs only AFTER
implementing strategic initiatives in IT that greatly affect the cost
structure of IT—such as application rationalization, database
rationalization, data center consolidation—or after a merger,
acquisition, divestiture, or strategic shift is complete.
Some organizations opt for an "absorption costing" or flat charge approach
to distributing IT service costs, rather than allocations. This involves a standard
flat charge for IT services for each department. This usually involves the
- Cost centers are established.
- Direct charges are made to the cost centers.
- Overhead and other indirect charges are distributed to the cost
center on a flat charge basis.
This approach is easy, relatively inexpensive to implement, and may be
appropriate in cases where there is a simple product or service range
and/or a small organizational structure. However, in other cases it can be
- Large or highly profitable departments will pay the same for IT services
as small departments. Assuming that larger departments use more
IT services than smaller ones (usually the case), then this is inherently
unfair, favoring the former and penalizing the latter.
- Flat charges can provide disincentives to use essential services. If a
department is under severe cost pressure, they may choose not to
pay for IT services like anti-virus software, IT security programs, disaster
recovery provisions, testing, and quality assurance.
Next: The Benefits of Cost Allocation