Beating the budget blues

"May you live in interesting times," goes the old curse. That's right: curse. Stable, comforting, even flat-out boring eras are the ones to live in, apparently. If that's true, corporate IT is enjoying a Golden Age.

Clearly, there have been more exciting times in IT. Budgets continue to be squeezed. Security, consolidation, regulatory compliance and other important-but-unsexy projects dominate the landscape. The "next big thing" is elusive.

The result: enthusiasm is hard to muster. It's probably tougher today to get clearance for a major project than it's ever been, says Joseph Balcom, director of enterprise solutions at Gtech Holdings, a transaction-processing company.

"You've got to have a crystal-clear business case if you're going to get funded," says Balcom, who recently managed Gtech's upgrade of its SAP ERP software.

"When you go through a period like this, with [IT] spending down and conservative management the rule, the corporate culture in most organizations prevents anyone from introducing brand-new technologies or applications," says Jim Shepherd, an analyst at AMR Research.

In the midst of this grind, it's a challenge for CIOs to keep their senior management colleagues and business partners excited about IT. When the right projects come along, can CIOs still persuade their CEOs to cut the big cheques?

In the right circumstances, yes. Technology managers who have undertaken costly projects in this conservative environment insist that where there's a will, there's still a way. Make no mistake, there are no more blank cheques in large-scale IT. But even in these ho-hum times, it's possible to build both buzz and commitment.

When Auto Warehousing recently spent $US40 million on a new processing facility, CIO Dale Frantz faced an uphill battle in convincing the company to install a new wireless network and spend an extra $500,000 or so (not including in-house developers' time) to upgrade the handheld devices used the company used.

"Our CEO is not especially tech-savvy," Frantz says. "The IT department was always seen as a drain of funds, and the [dumb] scanners had worked for 15 years."

To persuade the CEO, Frantz doggedly cost-justified the 802.11b wireless LAN he wanted. "By nature, he's sceptical of both spending and IT, so he always wanted more estimates," Frantz says of his boss. After a "reluctant" green light for the project, Auto Warehousing's LAN paid off when the company was able to reduce the number of employees tracking vehicle identification numbers from more than 20 to three. That benefit was persuasive enough even for the CEO, and Frantz's team is now taking another of the company's facilities wireless.

Death by committee

The challenge at Auto Warehousing was personality-driven: a key executive was an IT sceptic. But according to AMR's Shepherd, today's ambitious IT plans are more likely to face death by committee, because many companies have created demanding technology steering groups and justification procedures.

That's the case at Regions Financial Corp. "We have a technology council chaired by our CEO," says John Dick, CIO at the financial services firm. "Everything needs to go through a rigorous approval that requires business justification and a technical architecture review."

Dick's team is in the process of modernizing a proprietary risk management application. In squiring the project through the justification phase, he says, the key was helping business executives grasp the competitive advantage to be gained. "We have a reputation for superior credit management, so in discussing that, I knew we'd hit the sweet spot," Dick says.

He closed the sale by tying the proposed expenditure to credit management, which Regions Financial views as its secret weapon. Thus, in one fell swoop, he both demonstrated that the project was tightly linked to business goals and appealed to a key point of pride. The project was funded, and its first phase is complete.

Clinical commitment

A US-based healthcare provider, which encompasses nine hospitals, has had clinical kiosk systems on most hospital floors. Each kiosk included a stripped-down PC running terminal-emulation software from Citrix Systems. On top of the Citrix software sat packaged applications to help nurses and physicians do their jobs. For example, nurses could search for patients' prescription histories, and doctors could view X-rays remotely.

When the kiosks had been up and running for several months, the CIO John Wade and his team began to notice that nurses and, in particular, physicians weren't using them as much as they had initially. Interviews revealed one main reason: users faced a time-consuming double sign-on process; they had to log into Citrix and then log into the health care applications. Busy clinicians quickly became annoyed by the queues.

"The double sign-on was a nice IT solution, but it wasn't meeting users' needs," Wade says.

The project manager Todd Hatton led an effort to develop an elegant fix: Citrix would run constantly in the background so the doctors and nurses would need to log on only once.

Even better, Hatton's group developed split-screen technology so that the application used by physicians always occupied half the screen, while the nurses' application occupied the other. Practically, only one person at a time uses a kiosk. But having both welcome screens up at once proved inviting to the healthcare workers.

According to Wade, programming costs for the upgrade ran only $US120,000 to $135,000. But for the application to work properly, the healthcare provider had to replace about 1000 monitors, most of which were far from obsolete, with expensive flat-panel displays.

"That cost us," Wade says, declining to name a dollar figure. "I had members of the management committee say, 'We're spending enough on IT, and by the way, I'd like to see more of it spent in my area'." And that committee controlled the purse strings.

Wade's response to the objections was to rely on the committee's commitment to clinical excellence. He pointed out that the existing kiosks were going unused and that meant patients weren't getting the best possible care. The committee was persuaded, funding for the project was approved, and the improved system has been in production since March, with use and satisfaction up dramatically.

Whether your organization's goal is increased profits, a competitive edge, improved healthcare or better education, demonstrating how your IT project will help reach that goal is the key to revving up interest among your business colleagues and loosening up the purse strings.

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