IT Moves In - With the Business

Judith Spitz's tech department had to make work run smoother and faster as Verizon Communications moved forward with its customer service initiative.

Verizon wanted customers who called in orders or service requests to get great service quickly without talking to a rep, and IT had a major role in getting the job done. "Just delivering the system was not going to cross the finish line for us," Spitz says. "The way we operate had to be different."

So Spitz, senior vice president of network systems at the New York-based company, put her IT workers right in the call centers, engineering centers and dispatch centers. That way, they could see firsthand how to improve business processes.

"It probably saved our lives," says Mary Jane Johnston, who was then vice president for the fiber solutions center. "Their availability to us -- their willingness to understand our world -- was tremendously helpful." (Johnston has since been promoted to market area president for the Potomac region.)

While many companies are struggling to get IT and business on the same page, Spitz and other technology executives are finding success by putting them together. They have put IT staffers and their business partners side by side to develop a better understanding of one another's jobs so they can deliver better products.

In 2004, Debra Rice, IT applications director at WellPoint, an Indianapolis-based health benefits company, was in charge of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar project to rewrite the software that handles payments to health care providers. After watching the effort flounder for a year, Rice says, she moved her IT workers in with finance in April. "It was very important to make sure both sides understood what we were going for," Rice says. "There's a different sense of team because we're situated together."

Now, with IT on the scene rather than siloed 15 miles away, the two groups are talking more, reviewing plans and answering questions in real time. "You can't do that on the phone or in e-mail," she says. "That's probably our biggest gain -- that we don't have to repeat. We do it right together the first time."

Rice reports that the project is back on track, and three recent milestones were reached on time and within budget. "I don't think we would have achieved them if we were not collocating," she says.

Together All the Time

Such successes have pushed some companies to employee collocation all the time. Take the case of Pfizer Inc. The New York-based pharmaceutical company has had its operations-oriented IT workers embedded with business divisions for more than a decade. "Once technology started to be viewed as something that could give a competitive advantage, it had to be closer to the business units to understand priorities," says Fred Bennett, Pfizer's director of operations.

So every Pfizer corporate function, from sales to finance to marketing, has at least one staffer from the company's business technology group physically working within the unit, a setup that promotes more interaction and teamwork, Bennett says.

"Collocation allows us to better understand our client and their challenges," adds Ramon L. Vega, a director/team leader in the business technology group.

Vega works with Pfizer's consumer marketing group. He says collocation helps him understand what marketing wants to achieve and how IT can support those goals. "When you have the siloed IT away from the client, you look at it as a commodity. You fill requests," he says. But with collocation, Vega says, "you are involved in the creation or definition of the business strategy from the beginning."

Putting IT staff members with the business units they serve isn't a novel notion, experts say. But the practice isn't employed universally, either. "If IT has little to do with strategy, you'll find [IT workers] sitting off to the side," says Kavin W. Moody, executive director of the Center for Information Management Studies at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.

But as IT departments become more strategic, IT executives will -- or at least should -- look for ways to make the exchange of knowledge between their workers and the business people more effective, Moody says.

For example, Spitz found that her IT department needed closer links with the business as Verizon installed fiber-optic networks linking homes and businesses to the company's network. The project demanded innovations that the traditional arrangement -- IT folks meeting but not necessarily interacting regularly with business counterparts -- didn't promote, Spitz says.

"We understood that we [needed] very, very high flow-through," she says, meaning that there should be very little human intervention in processes such as ordering, provisioning and managing problems. "We had to get the hands out of the process and let the software do the work," she says.

So Spitz started putting IT workers in service centers to observe customer service reps on the job. "We sit next to them and watch what they're doing, and we're watching [for] 'user error' -- where they're not using the system the way it was designed to be used. We ask why," she says.

Spitz points to two systems that have been implemented since this staffing shift. One allows workers to track service orders as they move through the pipeline; the other analyzes the network capacity of business customers who want to know if their existing networks can handle additional loads. Both systems drastically reduce the time workers spend manually completing the requested tasks.

Spitz says her IT staffers couldn't have developed either system so quickly and comprehensively if they hadn't experienced the initial problems firsthand. "It would have taken longer until the problem was raised to IT," she says, "and the system solution would have been half of what it ended up being."

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