Feature: What projects are next?

Corporate IT managers have been dreaming Internet dreams while living the realities of year 2000 preparation. But as companies near the Y2K homestretch, the next round of innovation is finally in sightHow and when IT professionals get from here to there will be affected by how they've handled Y2K. Some companies will be wearing completion of huge Y2K projects like a badge of honour to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Others are gradually shifting Y2K resources to other projects as they finish up. Companies that have managed to keep the technology pipeline flowing throughout Y2K projects will be in business-as-usual mode. And for some of the new Internet companies, Y2K was never an issue.

At FDX, more than 95 per cent of applications are already Y2K-certified and back in production. Robert Carter, vice president and chief technology officer at the holding company of Federal Express, says that with Y2K work virtually complete: "We can put our emphasis on moving forward." That will mean "putting all of our [bets] on Web-enabled, supply-chain-based enhancements to our base of applications".

Specifically, FDX is planning to redefine the concept of inventory as products in motion.

Through access to its massive data warehouses, customers will know when shipments will arrive and exactly what they contain. That will allow them to plan their production cycles so efficiently that supplies will arrive and be manufactured into products and shipped without ever coming to rest, Carter says.

Many supply-chain projects have been enhanced by companies' Y2K experiences, helping them lay the groundwork for some initiatives that are set for next year.

At a large financial institution, for example, the Y2K project manager is spending one day a week laying the groundwork for a huge new project that kicks in next year. Elsewhere, post-Y2K initiatives have already sneaked under the tent in the guise of Y2K enhancements. "Some people are using Y2K as a vehicle," says Scott Shemwell, who works with the oil and gas industries at Electronic Data Systems. "They know they can get various projects approved if they can tag Y2K to them."

Many companies used enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations to lessen the pain of Y2K. For example, analysts expect a "second wave" of ERP, where companies will revisit ERP systems hastily implemented as Y2K fixes and fine-tune them for added benefit.

After Y2K, many customer-service initiatives will face a challenge of marrying back-office systems with new front ends. For example, a large financial institution has been building models to predict the most likely products a customer may need in the future and using technology to get that information to salespeople when they talk with customers.

"The real key is capturing the information you exchange [with customers] and getting it looped back in so it can improve what we do in the next go-round," says the head of customer analysis, who declined to be named.

For example, a customer who's offered a bank loan may tell the salesperson he's not interested today, but next year, when his daughter graduates from high school, a loan for college might come in handy.

"The challenge is to get that kind of information back into the database so that nine months from now it can kick off a trigger to get in touch with you," he says. "We have to figure out how to capture and systematically quantify information that is relatively free-form in such a way that the system can help us understand it and act on it."

As companies move beyond year 2000, they'll change, and so will IT.

And with CEOs taking an active interest in Y2K, senior managers are finally getting the exposure they have needed to understand the impact of technology. That should raise IT's status in the company moving forward, even if there are major Y2K glitches that cost some CIOs, or even CEOs, their jobs.

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