Guest column: Six Months -- or Else

Well, it has finally happened. Large-scale software is being delivered on time and under budget. More important, a development project now sets 90 days for the key first deliverable and no more than six months for full implementation, and there's no time wasted prototyping - you go straight into full design.

If you're an information technology professional who has heard all this before and is ready to dismiss this as more consultant BS, please don't. (One IT manager recently called me a liar when I presented figures on what's happening in company after company.) This is real, and it requires IT to radically shift every aspect of its own operations. When major new business-to-business hubs and e-commerce consumer sites are built in 90 to 180 days, there is absolutely no way that IT can stick to the marathon-run timetables of the past.

I periodically take top management teams from my client firms "on safari" to Silicon Valley and to what I call the Washington Internet command center - the area of Washington, Maryland and Northern Virginia, where the next generation of Internet innovation in business, public policy, telecommunications and media is centered. I keep my own ears on alert for the next "Wham!" that will clearly signal that a major shift is coming in technology or business for everyone. Two years ago, it was the now-obvious explosion of business-to-business e-commerce. Last year, it was application service providers and wireless tools nearing mass rollout.

This year: Wham, wham and wham! I returned from safari in March, my notebooks packed with case after case of the 90-day-to-delivery rule. Sun Microsystems Inc., Ariba, BroadVision, HP, KPMG, Monterey Network Center and Celosis, all suppliers of tools for business innovation, gave me dozens of instances of Fortune 1,000 companies and dot-coms that moved from development of a business model to operation that quickly.

The new basic business assumption is that this now has to be the case. A company no longer has time on its side, and executives now insist that the key issue is to get something out fast, even if it isn't complete in the traditional sense of full systems requirements. That's why there isn't any more prototyping. The rule is: We need it up and running fast, and we'll fine-tune it as we go; what can you give us? This is a fairly universal shift in the companies that recognize that the business question isn't whether or not to innovate but how and how fast.

"Fast" means the assembly and reuse of tools rather than building systems from scratch. Everything now is component software, plus application programming interfaces, plus plug-and-fix, plus real and committed partnering. And suppliers recognize this. The new offer from a supplier goes like this: "We don't do that piece ourselves, of course - integration with legacy systems, databases and enterprise resource planning - but here are our partners who do. Let me tell you about one of our clients - Household Name ABC - that we got up and running in 10 to 12 weeks." I must have heard that even more often on our safari than the phrase "stock options."

One company we visited is among the top 20 technology providers. Its IT function has an interesting business model: no programmers or programming and no $50 million systems-development proposals - $2 million is the limit. This forces business and IT to cooperate in new ways. It makes development fundamentally a process of prioritisation - the 90-day pressure - and of alliances. Firms like Ariba and BroadVision have superb technologies with big gaps. Those gaps are filled by systems integrators, professional service firms and even by collaborations with competitors, called "co-opetition."

This is the reality that IT must respond to. It needs a new business model to help the business implement its business model - fast.

Keen is chairman of Keen Education, as well as an author and consultant. His Web site is www.peterkeen.com, and he can be reached at peter@peterkeen.com

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