Just contemplating the choices

"Too much of a good thing can be wonderful," Mae West.

Looking back over the past 12 months of The Rust Report, certain recurring patterns, themes and questions swarmed into clarity. What I rediscovered was the rise of IT choices. The most important opportunity facing this community today is choice. We have more choices than we know what to do with, choices that are suitable for and scalable for practically any size, need, industry or enterprise.

But the more choices we have, the more our values matter. Solving immediate problems must be balanced with preserving tomorrow's opportunities; empowerment must be balanced with quality control; flexibility must be balanced with consistency.

In this era of abundance and outsourcing, choosing what not to do is every bit as important as choosing what to do better than anybody else. As any writer can tell you, everybody's an editor and, it seems, these days everyone is a consultant. And as more companies offer advice for hire, more types of consulting companies appear. More choice is usually a good thing, but it can also get extremely confusing.

Aligning the stars

For at least the last 10 years, senior business and information systems executives have struggled with how to bring information technology and business closer into alignment. As business needs multiplied, the gap widened between the solutions IT offered and the business challenges facing managers, enlightened representatives of both camps redoubled their commitment.

To survive and grow, companies had to be more nimble than their competitors. Many agreed to play the role of trailblazers often risking implementing unfinished products. The rewards for those who signed as early adopters included getting a leg up on technology that helped them do faster, cheaper or smarter business than their competitors.

Being a pioneer could also mean getting a few arrows in your back, but it's the classic trade-off between getting some competitive advantage and running risks.

In the 1990s, most organisations experienced business process re-engineering and implemented enterprise resource planning (ERP) or other packaged software. ERP was difficult to implement. Often firms adapted their business processes to the ERP system rather than the other way around. This translated to using business processes similar to those of competitors and maybe losing competitive advantage. Moreover, ERP systems often only addressed the needs of part of the enterprise, creating islands of automation and a need for integration that required considerable effort. Now in the new millenium business ecosystems are changing rapidly. It takes total management attention to address the needs of one's clients while also pre-empting the moves of competitors.

The value of IT

IT, while crucial in its narrow function, is still untapped intellectual capital in developing business propositions and creating shareholder value. The challenge is for technology people to think beyond the technological solution and to work with management to shape strategies for making money in the new economy.

The answers are different for each industry and each enterprise. Emphatic results need to be shown at every step of the way towards achieving an organisation's mission. There will be no patience for projects that go on and on consuming huge dollars, waiting for the big bang to occur at the every end.

Capital investment, common architectures, return on investment and multi function integration will be the bywords of the 21st century CIO.

Moores' Law shows no sign of being repealed. What about software? Fortunately the news is getting better here too. Commercially off-the-shelf software is matching hardware development. This is also true from communications to operating systems to database management systems, to languages and to applications. Each of these areas is important to the CIO of the 21st century.

The e in the equation

The Internet many believe solves many of the problems. It is relatively inexpensive and simple, and it is ubiquitous. That means organisations of virtually any size can participate in e-commerce!

But low cost of ease-of-use can also seduce organisations into moving quickly into e-commerce often with no strategy, no executive commitment and no way to measure the results of their efforts. No business in its right mind would pursue a new business opportunity without strategy and metrics. Yet countless have done essentially that with e-commerce.

The IT world today is full of many possibilities, but technology, with its pervasive influence on our lives, can sometimes overwhelm us. Because of this, we seldom take the time to reflect, and in turn we often lose sight of the fact that technology is but just one facet of our lives, a tool to be harnessed and to serve us, rather than the reverse.

Week after week, we believe that the next technology solution will fix all the problems left by the previous "whiz-bang" invention. Placing faith in the next wave of technology is always risky, especially when capital budgets are small and operating budgets are extremely thin. New technologies can cost a lot of money, infrastructures almost always need refurbishing, training also demands time that has been allocated to other things. And because virtually no technology is as straightforward as it first appears, confusion often reigns during and following implementations.

At the same time IT marketers know this and many try to exploit it. Some IT consulting firms as well as some ERP and e-commerce companies often think the shortest route to a sale is through the non-IS office. We could nominate this as the "year of the encircling crusaders".

Quick draw

With "promises" of major new business-to-business hubs and e-commerce sites being built in 90 or 180 days, there is absolutely no way that internal IT operations can stick to the marathon-run timetables of the past. Also they need to keep their ears on alert for the next "hot technologies" that appear like they are on steroids.

The rule is: we need it up and running fast and we fine-tune on the fly - when can you start? This is like a race between the tortoise and the hare, only this time the hare will not be falling asleep.

Soon we will have bandwidth technologies overrunning yesterday's microchip technologies and serving business, government and personal needs faster, cheaper and better. The important part is that you don't necessary need to understand how all these new technologies work, but you do need to know, what they are and how they will transform the business world and who is likely to own them!

As the industry jumps on the next bandwagon of the rosy predictions from the analysts who are highlighting a period of intense reformation, most organisations lack the skills needed to support e-commerce and many of their existing systems don't meet e-commerce requirements for reliability, speed and continuous operation.

Smart and worldly as we all may be, we're drawn to the many golden promises (if we weren't there would be no marketing) but even genuinely novel developments can distract us from seeing their limitations. Disruption, challenges and choices will continue to put pressure on IT and among the casualties will be time for contemplation and life balance.

In this IT life few things endure, today's breakthrough product is quickly eclipsed by the next innovation or gets lost in a sea of clones.

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