Charting an R&D course

Tracking the research-and-development activities of technology vendors might seem a better focus for science documentary filmmakers than for IT managers. But in the real world, today's technical breakthrough could influence next year's IT decision-making.

By keeping an eye on R&D activities, IT organizations can prepare themselves for important architecture and purchasing decisions. If they know which technologies are feeding the product pipeline, IT managers can more reliably plan their systems and personnel strategies and be better positioned to select the best technologies to meet their companies' business requirements.

That's been true for Jeffrey Pound. "Strategically, I think that storage is going to get cheaper and consolidated into larger pools," says Pound, chief technology officer at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

"So I'm going to start shifting resources from storing to securing, because as I aggregate data, it becomes more valuable," he adds. "And I've got to significantly step up my [information assurance] activities to make sure I'm not spinning a disk with malicious code or funky data on it."

Rather than building a slavish dependence on the latest technology products, IT managers should instead track R&D activities to gain the perspective needed to plan ahead, says Donn Dinunno, an analyst at Stamford, Connecticut-based Meta Group Inc.

"Putting in new technology too quickly is disruptive," says Dinunno. "You're actually making the hardware obsolete faster" by making changes before all of the benefits of the technology have been leveraged, he adds.

The trick, says Dinunno, is to anchor R&D planning around strategic business concerns, rather than investigating technology for its own sake. The question IT managers should be asking is, Where do customers want us to go, and what's doable there? he says.

Organizations would be well served to follow the example of some larger companies that rely upon a handful of IT staffers to track emerging technologies considered to be five years from market, assign a dozen or so people to focus on the three-year strategic planning window and have others looking at technologies that are ripe for adoption within the one-year budget cycle, according to Dinunno.

Where to go

In addition to surfing the Web, participating in chat groups and becoming involved in user associations, IT managers often turn to consultants and market research firms for clues about future technology developments. Vendor R&D bulletins and white papers occasionally provide useful information, but they sometimes resemble marketing babble.

But even the best scouting is useless unless the information is shared effectively within the company.

"Many of the hierarchical organizations that are larger don't do a good job of communicating down," says Dinunno. "In start-ups and fairly small, cohesive units, people coordinate and communicate much better."

In addition, increasing efficiency in routine operations can free people to research next-wave technologies.

"Try to automate and delegate everything to the lowest level possible. It gives you the bandwidth to really focus and be strategic and look at those emerging technologies," says Rod Massey, chief information officer (CIO) for the city of Palo Alto, California. That hard-won time should be spent delving into the most widely applicable technology, he advises.

"Focus on the emerging technologies that are going to give you the most bang for the buck across all the lines of business, or your areas of [IT] operation something like wireless vs. a niche technology," says Massey.

IT departments need to draw up lists of the technologies likely to affect their businesses.

Dan Black, director of e-commerce at United NetWorks, a subsidiary of UAL Corp. in Chicago, says his group spends a lot of time evaluating wireless technologies and studying future directions of managed service providers.

Explaining the organization's interest in managed service providers, Black says, "It's not a technology, necessarily, but there's a shift in how you do infrastructure services, and we're trying to feel our way through where that's going."

Still, some managers are reluctant to dwell on prospects beyond the three- to five-year range. "You can't put a lot of weight into that, other than giving you some general technical directions, because the market has no guarantee to be there," says Black.

But taking the long view can counteract the dizzying effects of day-to-day IT operations and the steady drumbeat of product releases.

"Do a little R&D every day, for sanity purposes if not for strategic purposes, to make sure that you are keeping things in balance," suggests Dinunno.