Corporate America tends to view its IT departments as cost centers. While that may have been true when most of our work was done with pencil and paper, and an occasional data entry into a blinking black and green screen, it is not true today and this type of thinking really needs to change – for the sake of Corporate America. Consider these two emerging trends:
- Hyper-competitive environment: Tight budgets and world economies in and out of recessions have made clients more critical and competitors more aggressive. The mom and pop shop style of doing business cannot keep up anymore.
- Technological differentiation: In a tough business environment, like we work in today, smart use of technology is becoming a key competitive advantage.
At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, we still don’t think of IT as a source of a competitive advantage, a revenue driver, etc. This is much more than a need for an attitude adjustment. Failure to maximize utilization of IT resources is a strategic mistake that can result in loss of opportunities and revenues.
The most effective way I can illustrate the importance of rethinking IT, is with a real life example. Recently I had the opportunity to talk with a particularly fast thinking Director of IT who succeeded to add value to his organization and grow sales by 30%.
Gene Lennon, is the Greater Media Newspaper group IT director. He wrote an iPad app for his sales team that reduced data inaccuracy, automated the red-tape, and increased revenue. Basic facts about the project can be found in an article in Editor & Publisher.
But I wanted to know more, so I contacted Mr. Lennon and he gracefully agreed to answer some of my questions. I had just four :
- Understand the Business Process
There is a lot of talk about embedding IT into business units and/or business unit reps with IT. It seems common knowledge that an understanding of business processes is essential for creation of a valuable technology. It certainly makes sense. Computers are supposed to be able to automate routine tasks, but one would have to know what tasks to automate in order to make the computer do something useful. Simple as it may sound, this is a challenge that many developers/system vendors fail to overcome.So how did Greater Media overcome this obstacle? Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet. Mr. Lennon has been with the company for 20 years, runs the production department, and shares a hallway with the sales team. He was familiar with the process, down to the size and shape of the paper forms that sales reps fill out. With this understanding it was self-evident what needed to be done. And that is really the key – to implement self-evident solutions. To put it in another way, Dr. Goldratt (author of “The Goal”) once said that a physicist’s dream is to discover something so simple that everyone else will say “Why didn’t I think of that”. Clarity of understanding results in a simple solution which results in a smoother development process and better user acceptance.The take away for the rest of us? Interact, interact and interact. Bring your IT team into the trenches with you. Put them through sales training, have them “intern” for a work-flow that you want to improve. You’ll be surprised with the solutions they find to these ongoing challenges.
- TheTime to Do It
A typical IT department is overworked, behind schedule, and barely managing to keep their heads above water. So how did Greater Media’s IT manage to run a side project for one year? I was hoping to hear that they implemented administration automation scripts, had a system of log parsers and alerts, and so on.But reality was more traditional. Mr. Lennon and his systems manager Jeff Messeroll just burned the midnight oil to get it done.The take away for the rest of us? You can’t always have your cake and eat it too. At least for now, long hours and IT will continue to go hand in hand.
- Motivation to Do It
Most IT professionals are creative people with no shortage of ideas about improving the systems that they interact with. However the percentage of time they actually get to spend on implementing these suggestions is low. Moreover, inertia and fear of unexpected budget overruns virtually guarantee that the management’s response to an in-house innovation project is going to be “no”. As the saying goes “Better the devil you know”. This is despite the often high costs of current imperfect practices.How did this dynamic play itself out at Greater Media? Mr. Lennon relates that his “iPad project” was done in stealth mode. Had he requested approval, he would not have received it, “due to budgetary concerns”. At the same time, as production manager, he was dealing with a constant stream of data entry errors that jeopardized the production schedule and newspaper production deadlines are mission critical. Talk about creative tension! Moreover, he told me that the only reason he managed to do it, is because of the small size of his development team (just Gene and Jeff). In fact, a development team from a bigger newspaper paid Mr. Lennon a visit and wanted to learn from his experience. After a day of talking, they went away very impressed, but didn’t intend to implement the same tool at their paper. Why? Because of the anticipated red tape. To put it another way, they were sure that they were not going to be able to convince management to authorize an internal development project that was projected to increase revenue by 30%!The take away for the rest of us? There is no such thing as “it just makes sense”. It has to make sense to all stakeholders. Resistance to change and fear of IT expenditures is still very much a force to be reckoned with. We may think that our main business is working with computers, but really the human element is as big of a concern.
- Smart Integration
Exciting as all of the above may be, the techie inside of me really wanted to get to the last question as soon as possible. I mean how did they do it? A system like this must integrate multiple data silos, verification rules, etc. If it sounds daunting, it is. While many IT departments may complain about “don’t touch” vendor systems that they have to support, the truth is that everyone has at least one “beast” subsystem that they don’t want to touch. So I was very curious, how many beasts did Greater Media have to slay to get their iPad app working?Mr. Lennon knew what I was talking about when I asked this question. He said that he had four disparate systems to interact with, and little appetite for changing any of them. What did he do? Using FileMaker Pro he made the new schema that would fully support the application and built adapters for each “beast” to exchange data with them in a native format. Talk about having your cake and eating it to!The take away for the rest of us? Work smart, not hard. While it is obviously a good way to go, we don’t always have to break down the silos. Sometimes it’s enough to provide an interface to an isolated system. Always keep in mind the beauty of a “good enough” innovation. In this case, it’s true that adapters have a negative impact on performance, but compared to what was in place before, it was a huge leap forward. And that’s perhaps the biggest take away for all of us – to keep moving in the right direction. Mr. Lennon and his team are not resting on their laurels. They will be the first to tell you that there is plenty more to do, but they’ve made a step in the right direction and that was enough to have a positive effect on the business bottom line. And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?