Focus on tomorrow

It’s not uncommon for IT organizations to feel understaffed and overburdened. That’s especially true today, as economic pressures lead to some heavy corporate downsizing. But even when a company downsizes, its work doesn’t go away.

So IT professionals are feeling the pressure. But while they may feel pressure, most IT organizations are lost in the drone of legacy systems, the din of dot-com collapses and the creaking of technology infrastructures. There’s no real leadership on the technology side about what to do next with IT. Most IT managers aren’t sufficiently focused on the future. On the business side, managers don’t have the appetite to step up to the next round of investment that’s required to leverage the Internet’s full power. They listen politely as major software vendors promise to deliver savings with the next release but choke on the prospect of once again spending millions and getting little in return. Managers also remain confused about the real effect the Internet will have on how business gets done.

One manager recently told me that he no longer believes the assertion that “it isn’t the big that will eat the small, but the fast that will eat the slow.” He said he’s now telling his people that “the second mouse gets the cheese,” so his company won’t be aggressive with technology. The broad slowdown of technology markets also reflects the fact that most companies’ IT engines are idling.

At a recent meeting of investment analysts who cover the information services industry, I was asked what it will take to get IT spending going again. What is the big move companies will make to wake up the market?

My answer is that I’m optimistic about IT and what it will do to transform business. The next big move is sitting right in front of IT and business managers and will become clear if you read the following three questions and answers. Recognize, however, that getting the IT engine going isn’t just about spending on technology. It’s about first considering the business changes that IT now enables.

1. What’s the transformational technology that will enable radical business change?

It’s still the Internet. Managers just have to see beyond the collapse of poorly conceived and executed Internet businesses. Never before has IT been so ubiquitous and cheap. The Net is the network that will enable companies to redo their processes and, in concert with other companies, reach new levels of business performance. Most corporate inefficiencies lie in the work that’s done between companies the reorders, misbillings and redundant work that occurs because intercompany processes aren’t aligned. The Internet is the technology that will allow you to fix these problems.

2. What business advantage is there to gain?

IT, when combined with new process designs, will deliver both extraordinary efficiency for companies and new value propositions for customers. Investors may be pummeling Cisco Systems Inc.’s stock, but they recognize that this company has built a set of compelling business processes and practices enabled by the Internet. You must look for both cost-reduction and value-creation opportunities, just as Cisco has done.

3. What will it take to get to the next level of business performance?

You must begin to reconsider all of your processes, but this time, not just within the walls of your company. You must also look at the processes of customers and suppliers. Think information-rich customer relationship management and supercharged supply chains.

The days of the Internet are just beginning. The next round of business performance enhancement is at hand. What’s required is aspiration, combined with time, money and a lot of persistence. It’s time for IT to get going again, but now the future is both within companies and beyond their walls.

Jim Champy is chairman of consulting at Perot Systems Corp. in Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at