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Giving IT a competitive edge

One way to make sure IT is providing a competitive edge to your business is to divide technology projects into two camps -- players and winners.

NEW ORLEANS -- Everyone is well aware of the CIO marching orders: Make sure business and IT are tightly aligned.

But tight budgets, separate business units and goals that aren't always easily measured make it a big challenge still. At the Gartner Midsize Enterprise Summit this week, analysts offered some tips for prioritizing projects and ensuring that IT really is meeting business needs.

During a presentation, Niel Nickolaisen, director of strategic planning with Headwaters Inc., a South Jordan, Utah-based energy company, said companies should evaluate all IT projects based on their impact on the business. The key is to divide the projects into two categories: those that help maintain parity with the competition and those that provide a business advantage.

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At a former job, Nickolaisen was able to help a printing company shrink an 18-month, $2 million content management system project to a four-month $400,000 project. It turned out that 27 of 29 modules simply helped the organization reach parity and could be implemented with off-the-shelf products. Instead of focusing energy and money on the entire project, he focused on just the two areas that mattered most to the company's bottom line.

IT systems that help maintain parity such as infrastructure, accounting systems and logistics should be run to achieve functionality at low cost. In these projects, CIOs should avoid customization and expensive fixes, he said.

"Eighty to ninety percent of what we do in IT can be parity," Nickolaisen said. "The goal is not to over invest."

Jeff Roggensack, vice president of information services and technology for Reno, Nev.-based Alere Medical Inc., said forcing business unit leaders to determine whether an initiative achieved parity, or truly helped differentiate the business from the competition, would likely eliminate the requests for projects that lack a long-term purpose.

"If they had to decide on their own if the project was a differentiator, often they wouldn't bring it up," Roggensack said.

Businesses should assign one person on the IT staff who has some business background to be a liaison between the departments, said Barbara Gomolski, research vice president with Gartner. That way, both the IT and business staff have one trusted person they can turn to with their needs and concerns.

That approach worked well for Mike Poweleit, IT manager with Cincinnati-based OKI Bering. OKI recently began handling shipping for one of its partners. The company had to bring an outside business into its ordering and shipping process. The liaison was able to work with both the outside company and the internal IT and business units to make the transition a smooth one.

"That helped to open up the dialogue between business and IT," Poweleit said.

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