Credibility challenged

There was a time in the late 1990s when the common workplace refrain was, “Are we having fun yet?” I don’t quite remember the dot-com context (there’s so much of that period I’ve blotted out), but the gist of it was about wondering when all the insanely long hours and maniacal workaholism were going to pay off. For the most part, they never did.

Today the question (no longer even remotely amusing) would probably be: “Are we credible yet?” On a personal level, most IT executives and managers would probably answer in the affirmative. When we surveyed 144 senior IT managers at Computerworld’s Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference a few months ago, only 20 percent of them said they thought IT had image problems “in my company.” But 45 percent identified a lack of credibility for IT “in general.”

Those image problems stem from well-known complaints about IT departments being too slow, too expensive and too geeky to communicate the business value of what they’re doing. So, on a professionwide basis, IT is lugging around a lot of baggage, as our Cover Story last week pointed out in detail. There’s a lingering resentment at many companies about technology dollars gone down the drain. The evidence includes chronic IT budget overruns, fizzled projects, overpriced Y2k fixes, deflated dot-com dreams (remember B2B exchanges?) and the billions spent on complex enterprise software installations that didn’t quite live up to their billing — and probably never will. All of which puts your IT operation at greater risk of an unwelcome visit from the outsourcers.

Unfortunately, things have gotten worse in the past few years. The Hackett Group can prove it with performance benchmarks from some 2,000 of the nation’s top companies. At average-performing companies, the IT project completion rate was 67 percent last year — down from 72 percent in 1999. Even worse, completion of short-term projects (those that are supposed to take less than a year) slipped from 58 percent in ’99 to 51 percent last year.

What hurts about statistics like these is the way they paint the whole profession with the same sticky brush. That’s unfair to companies like Hilton Hotels, where Corporate Systems Vice President Damien Bean can prove how IT is run like a business with a bottom-line focus. “The entire IT budget — every last cent — is funded out of the business side, and we charge back. We absolutely hit our budgets,” he says, adding that “I don’t think IT executives are suffering a credibility gap more than any other senior function.”

Maybe so. But since the budget money for those future IT projects remains firmly in the hands of the CFOs and CEOs, any argument over who’s lost more credibility is likely to end in a Pyrrhic victory.

There are winning strategies in this image makeover challenge, however.

At the companies where IT has turned its reputation back into gold, the three best practices have been to involve the business units more in planning and decision-making, prioritize projects more effectively and boost communication with the CEO and other senior executives. Sounds rather common-sensical and familiar, doesn’t it? At other places, IT groups are creating marketing programs to call attention to their services. They’re surveying internal and external customers for feedback and suggestions. And they’re keeping it real with users by managing expectations and being honest about project delays.

So, are you credible yet?