Making IT exciting again

We spend our days slowing down the pace of change. We no longer upgrade equipment just because it's three years old. We avoid the next release. We worry about money all the time.

Meanwhile, our colleagues present us with the usual long lists of requests -- but not a single exciting project. Innovation appears dead. Caution rules.

If you're looking for something as big and challenging as when you installed your ERP package, the timing is wrong. But if you're looking for the opportunity to make a difference, the timing is right.

Here are two ideas to make life more interesting.

Infrastructure replatforming is becoming more interesting. One of my clients is seriously looking at buying another mainframe to run Linux partitions to replace Unix servers that run SAP. Why? Business continuity. It costs this client four times as much to have its disaster recovery vendor provide servers as it would to provide mainframe capacity, and installing another mainframe can prevent a multimillion-dollar data center upgrade as well.

This counterintuitive move (wasn't the mainframe supposed to have died by now?) also allows this client to break the back of its prioritization process, which was based on application projects automatically outweighing infrastructure moves. Its justification was simple: "Not only can we save money in the budget and increase our flexibility by doing this, but the return on investment is guaranteed as well. Sure, we may offer only a single-digit return -- but there's no doubt it will be delivered." This company now assesses the risk associated with getting a return -- and the infrastructure area is getting a lot more money as a result.

Increasing utilization of existing applications is also a growing trend. Vivaldi Odyssey and Advisory Service has discovered that real usage is often a fraction of what the business case intended, making the real ROI far less than expected. Six months after installation, it's not uncommon to find that only 15 percent of the users make use of 40 percent or more of the functions installed, with 20 percent still using less than 5 percent of the new capabilities. Low-use situations can see 60 percent or more of the users not use the new facility at all, with another 20 percent using less than 5 percent of its capabilities.

So where's the problem? Was the system overdesigned? Misdesigned? Is it an issue of management discipline in seeing to it that the system gets used? Would training help? Finding and solving the real problem will unlock the latent value in what has been delivered. When the solution delivered just doesn't solve users' problems, they won't use it. I recall one case where a major system was introduced that just didn't fit the way work was done. Even though the justification was staff reduction -- and the reductions had been made -- the users found a way to avoid the new system.

What ties these two ideas together is adopting a more businesslike approach. Thinking and speaking of financial risks and returns or acting as business consultants opens business leaders' eyes to the knowledge and skills IT professionals have. Convince them that you have more to offer than what you do inside IT, and the interesting work will begin to flow.

Bruce A. Stewart is a former CEO and onetime senior vice president and director of executive services at Meta Group. He is now an executive adviser in Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be contacted at bruce@bastewart.com.

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