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IT shop talk: What's next?

Is IT ready to start buying again? And if so, what's different this time around? Industry watcher Jon Oltsik says the past year has helped technology managers figure out what they want.

Once a month or so, I get together with a group of information-technology professionals called the Granite State Group at a historic tavern in New Hampshire. We have a couple of beers and talk about what's going on in their respective shops as well as within the industry.

When we got together recently, I asked what they were doing during this current IT depression. No one in the group was buying more than the necessities of basic hardware and software upgrades. Each was involved in a major application rollout, but these projects had been in the works for quite a while. The group viewed the economic respite as a breather, a chance to focus on fixing internal technology and organizational problems, cut costs, and prepare for future challenges.

As far as cost cutting, the downturn provided them with an opportunity to dig for IT gold in places they wouldn't normally look. One IT director told me his company found it was paying a carrier a monthly fee for several T1 lines to buildings that had been closed for 18 months. Another claimed his shop found it was making payments on several leases--even though it already owned the equipment. Easy money when you have the time to find it.

Members of the group agreed that technology infrastructure and management had grown far too complex. Before 2001, IT ran too fast and got so bamboozled by fast-talking salespeople that it ended up with a mess. Nowadays, IT managers are looking to reduce complexity and complete projects more efficiently.

If there was one consistent technology theme, it was IT consolidation. Their interest went beyond cost cutting as they talked about making a real effort to simplify IT architecture. Bemoaning the bane of complexity, one participant said that "building these systems is hard enough; changing them is next to impossible. Every time we move a building, buy a company or sign a partner, IT is left to figure it out. We've commissioned an IT task force to define how we can simplify our infrastructure and still address our business needs."

Equipment consolidation may be the low-hanging fruit, but these guys said they were also focused on examining internal processes in an effort to find places where there are too many handoffs or too many people working on a project. They were also on the prowl for areas where informal processes need to be enhanced with better structure and control.

While the Granite State Group members weren't ready to predict when the economy would improve, each claimed that they needed serious organizational changes to prepare for a recovery.

If there was one consistent theme, it was IT consolidation.
Their companies were already making staffing revisions and creating teams that melded technicians, generalists and operations folks into cohesive units focused on business applications.


The group believes that there's no longer room for organizational cliques when business applications are distributed on servers across distributed networks--a situation that will only get more difficult with the rollout of Web-based applications and network services. Granite State Group members expect these alterations to improve project implementation schedules and to provide better service to users, but one member noted the human implication: "We all grew up in IT with a focus on technology; this is a cultural change."

Given this psychological ramification, all agreed that IT staffers need lots of TLC through this transition.

Outside the IT organization itself, Granite State Group members stressed the importance of using the downturn to build and enhance relationships between IT and business managers. One of their companies created a breakfast meeting for IT and business managers to brainstorm about how the people responsible for an organization's technology can also address business strategy. These meetings were already producing results.

Before 2001, IT ran too fast and got so bamboozled by fast-talking salespeople that it ended up with a mess.
"The business guys were blown away by a presentation by one of the big application vendors," I was told. "We knew that this package offered a lot but demanded an architecture that was extremely complex and costly. We used the breakfast meeting as a way to educate the business manager on the costs and risks associated with this kind of complexity. He now understands that there is a trade-off between rock-solid delivery to customers and the latest slick, complex stuff."

Their conclusion: Now is the right time to get their IT houses in order, starting by understanding what's ahead, then by aggressively preparing for the future. Compensation should be tied to the changes, and measurable results must be defined. And above all, get the business guys to buy in.

Will this help IT--and the company--when the recovery occurs? I think it sounds like a good start.