Is your enterprise network centric?

Enterprises are increasingly scrutinizing their network infrastructure for cost savings and revenue generation, according to one industry observer.

Speaking at a Frankly Speaking Breakfast in Toronto — an IT World Canada event — Albert Silverman, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP’s senior vice-president, said in his experience companies tend to put one of a number of strategies at the top of the corporate agenda: products, customers, financials and networks among them.

These days, Silverman said, more and more firms are turning their attention to that last item, making it a priority. “The network…is an expanding piece” of the enterprise agenda.

Companies are making sales-force applications available online, and they’re beefing up their Web sites for a few reasons, Silverman said. For one, high-speed Internet access is readily available in more places today than it was in the past, so the infrastructure exists.

As well, young people entering the workforce “expect companies to be network centric,” he said, pointing out that the next wave of workers never knew a world without the Web.

In addition, there’s at least one example of how network centricity can help, and how ignoring the Net can hurt, Silverman said. He noted that Dell Inc., the computer maker, is doing well in part because it perfected the art of online PC sales.

IBM Corp., on the other hand, recently sold its PC division. Silverman said IBM never mastered the Web-sales method.

“We expect it to accelerate over the next couple of years,” Silverman said of the push towards network centricity.

One company touted as being perhaps more network centric than others is Cisco Systems Inc., the San Jose, Calif.-based communications equipment vendor. Brad Boston, Cisco’s CIO, talked about his company’s experiences at the event.

Speaking as an enterprise representative, rather than as a rep for a firm that sells network equipment, Boston said Cisco relies on connectivity for sales, business continuity and efficiency.

For instance, IP phones have let Cisco change its help-desk processes. Once upon a time an employee calling the help desk would have to navigate numerically the ever-expanding touch-tone menu to get the service she wanted. Now the menu shows up on the IP phone’s screen, so the user can punch a button that directly corresponds with the service she seeks, Boston said.

Another example: many Cisco employees have high-speed Internet access at their homes. This came in handy among Chinese workers during 2003’s outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), when people showing signs of having contracted the disease were told to stay at home until their symptoms subsided. If they were quarantined, the staffers could use soft phones — IP phones that reside on PCs — for communication. Although not in the office, they could receive and make calls as if they were.

Asked how IT managers at other companies could justify to their executives the cost of implementing IP phones, high-speed home access and other network niceties, Boston said forget about return-on-investment (ROI) calculations.

“We focus on how the business works, mapping out that process,” he said. Scrutinizing how departments work provides more insight than number crunching does.

And while it’s important to get end-user input, don’t let the business side take over. “We don’t have users deciding technology,” Boston said. That’s the IT department’s role.

But don’t fight the tide; ride momentum where it exists. When Cisco considered putting personal digital assistants (PDAs) into some of its employees’ hands, a study of the worker base revealed that 11,000 people already had something of the kind. Cisco used that data to decide the types of security measures needed to make sure sensitive company information remained secret.

Boston advised taking the slow road on IT projects. “We have some people that would like to be more aggressive,” and see Cisco roll out new productivity-enhancing apps to workers at a quicker pace. But sometimes “our business’s eyes are bigger than our stomachs” — departments request new technology but don’t always use it when they get it. A thorough understanding of the business’ needs combined with a kind of project champion to oversee the initiative helps ensure IT undertakings succeed.

Another crucial aspect of success is getting the C-suite’s buy in. “If the CEO is not engaged, you’re basically toast,” Boston said, noting that at Cisco, CEO John Chambers is keen on technology enhancements.

Certain aspects of Boston’s presentation rang true for Akhil Bhandari, CIO of CCL Industries Inc., a manufacturer of soap, shampoo and other household items in Toronto. A veteran of Frankly Speaking Breakfasts, Bhandari agreed that it’s particularly important to have the executives’ backing for IT projects, otherwise the high-tech expectations won’t be met.

George Lewis, vice-president, network engineering and design at Scotiabank’s systems, operations and technical services department, said he was glad that Boston talked about PDA management. “It’s an area we’re all concerned about.”

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