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CIOs fired up and ready to go again on IT and business alignment

After years of advice on IT and business alignment, you'd think CIOs would have heard enough. But at this week's Gartner Symposium ITxpo, the quest for IT business value lives on.

ORLANDO, FLA. -- You'd think CIOs would be jaded. After all, consultancy Gartner Inc. has been dispensing advice on IT and business alignment for 31 years. At the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando this week, however, CIOs appeared more eager than ever for guidance on how to prove -- and improve -- IT business value.

Take David Otte, CIO for Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin LLP. Since assuming that position three years ago, he has centralized the management of IT, fortified business continuity and disaster recovery with a new regional data center, and provided lawyers with "anytime, anywhere, anyhow" access to their work via technology from Citrix Systems Inc. A CPA and financial consultant who logged more than a decade of IT experience implementing financial systems, he brings a business sensibility to his job at the law firm. But he readily offered that his IT shop can do more to understand what Sidley Austin's 1,700 attorneys want from technology.

"We had focused so much on the back office. We needed to think about how the business uses technology and how to enable our 17 offices to work more productively," Otte said. Last year, in conjunction with an Office 2007 deployment, he launched a "user experience program" to help measure business and IT alignment. One of the reasons he came to the symposium, he explained in a lunchtime conversation, was to benchmark his progress against the best practices espoused at the conference and to get a bead on "where IT is headed," he said.

You're not the bottleneck. … You're not the reason why they can't implement strategy. … You own the speed of execution. … You are the means for scale.

Mark McDonald, group vice president and head of research, Gartner Inc. executive programs

Douglas Bailey, CIO and deputy administrator for the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said that his biggest challenge is educating his users on the value of IT. A major IT initiative to move all the department's servers to a virtual platform and its conglomeration of direct-attached storage to a storage area network will pay big dividends down the road. Users, however, saw the project as "disruptive and uncomfortable," he said: "There is a disconnect between where we believe we are going and their understanding of where we are going." One of his big goals this week is to learn how to close that gap. "We've been so focused on the technology side, but communication is probably the most important part of this job," he said.

Whether they realized it or not on the first day of the Gartner extravaganza, CIOs like Otte and Bailey are well positioned to make the transition to what the Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy sees as the 2011 CIO agenda.

As the country moves from recession to recovery, the secret sauce that will drive business value in 2011 and possibly beyond is speed and scale, said Mark McDonald, group vice president and head of research for Gartner executive programs: Companies need speed because markets are more fragmented than ever before. They need scale to realize the kind of efficiencies that will allow them to make money on less-expensively priced products. Having spent the last painful two years driving costs out of IT systems and laying the foundation for lighter-weight, scalable technology platforms, CIOs are uniquely positioned to drive IT business value, McDonald argued.

"You're not the bottleneck. You're not the long tail. You're not the reason why they can't implement strategy," McDonald led the cheer. "You own the speed of execution because you can't touch anything without touching IT these days. As your companies look to go for growth outside of home markets, as you diversify products and services to address ever-fracturing markets, you are the means for scale."

Adding the 'bacon and cheese' to the IT burger

As CIOs continue to use their systems for speed and scale, however, they always should be aiming for business value, or -- as Gartner is putting it this year -- "outcomes, not output," McDonald said.

McDonald, an imposing figure partial to using food analogies to explain the state of IT, likened the IT of 2011 to a hamburger -- not just any hamburger, but a double bacon cheeseburger: CIOs have brought the meat and bun to IT and business alignment, with fortified systems and lighter-weight technologies such as virtualization and the cloud. With that foundation in place, now's the time for CIOs to add the bacon and cheese "super foods" that will enhance IT business value, he urged.

In addition to cloud computing and mobile applications, which occupy first and second place on Gartner's list of top 10 strategic technologies for 2011, that means incorporating technologies explored this year by, including social media and networking, predictive analytics, and location-based computing.

A few words of caution about IT and business alignment

Productivity and efficiency, however, still matter for IT and business alignment, McDonald stressed. As CIOs look to incorporate the "fancy-dancy" technologies that are all the buzz at ITxpo into their IT strategies, they need to keep two questions uppermost in mind: How can they increase enterprise productivity? How are they going to increase the output from IT operations?

Because the obvious costs have long been squeezed out, McDonald urged CIOs to focus on reuse, in every sense. When the IT organization at OMV Aktiengesellschaft, an Austrian oil company, for example, is asked by the business to solve a problem, he recounted, the CIO asks one question: When have we solved that problem before? If the answer is "never," the CIO repeats the question. As a result, IT has cut project costs by 15% and delivered solutions in half the time. "The business will trade a helluva lot of functionality for time," he said, adding that with reuse, "risk goes down, costs go down and capacity goes up."

Increasing the IT department's output is not just a productivity issue -- it's a also a staff issue, McDonald underscored. The constant complaint from young workers Gartner deals with is, "When will this project ever end?" he said. The new generation of IT professionals, the so-called digital natives, expect technology to produce fast results. And by the way, breaking a big project into chunks under the guise of agile development won't cut it, McDonald added. "They see right through that."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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