International CIOs offer project management tips

NEW YORK–Big Bang evolutionary theory may be controversial, but it’s potentially disastrous as a software implementation strategy, according to Boston Millennia’s former CIO.

Pat Fortune joined a panel with three CIOs at the CIBC Enterprise and EBusiness Software Conference in New York

City on Wednesday to compare notes on lessons learned from the collapse of the high-tech market.

Now a partner at Millennia, Fortune said perhaps the only truly unique element of the dot-com meltdown was the speed at which it happened, says Boston Millennia partner and former CIO Pat Fortune. This makes it possible to take valuable lessons from previous periods of significant technological change, such as the rollout of the mainframe and client/server technology. He said the main lessons are that it is easy to overestimate an enterprise’s ability to change, that “big bang” installs aren’t a good idea, that it is vital to identify who the beneficiaries of the change will be and, finally, that implementing new technological is difficult.

It may all come down to realizing that the types of changes implicit in the software being sold today will fundamentally change the way people do their jobs and even what those jobs are. “It is not a technical issue, but the ability of a company to absorb change,” Fortune says. If anything, the Web will exacerbate the difficulty of corporate change because it will happen both behind and outside of the firewall.

Municipalities are different than businesses, says Hap Cluff, the director of information technology for the U.S. city of Norfolk, Va. The funding for an IT project comes from a fixed overall budget–it is impossible for a municipality to sell more “widgets” and therefore increase budgets, he notes. Thus, every dollar spent on IT comes at the expense of another budget item. This makes it even more vital to demonstrate the efficiencies such expenditures will bring.

But there is a tremendous opportunity to upgrade municipal systems, though it is often a tough sell. Cluff cites his experience as an information executive with the U.S. city of Fresno, Calif., where he wanted to digitize the city’s 3,000 paper forms. The problem of change management is key in such a scenario.

“How can I go out and implement each of these business processes, because that’s what each represents?” he says. “My idea is to get the same people (who are accustomed to having the forms printed) to do that electronically. That’s an incredibly different mind set.”

Republic Services Inc.–a solid waste management company–has grown drastically during the past five years via acquisition, says senior vice-president and CIO Lee Twyford. The overall task, then, was to standardize. First, Republic outsourced to AT&T, which used its frame relay network and eight IBM AS400 servers to link its 350 locations in 22 states. The next step was to standardize elements of the financial reporting system. PricewaterhouseCoopers implemented a Lawson Software platform for the company.

Twyford estimates that the company-wide standardization was done with about 80 percent off-the-shelf software. The remaining 20 percent of the job will involve less comprehensive projects, such as the possibility of using global positioning satellite (GPS) technology for truck route optimization. The company is piloting such projects now. Smaller companies may get the nod for these projects.

The ways in which software vendors are chosen is also changing. Robert Ferry, executive vice-president and CIO of Deutsche Post Global Mail, said “federating” or integrating software packages run by acquired companies is a vital undertaking. He is willing to work with newer and perhaps more innovative software companies for the national and local undertakings. For international projects–which have 24/7 service, multiple languages and other imposing support requirements–he leans toward bigger and more established vendors.

Fortune pointed to several questions that should be used to assess software companies. Can the product be delivered? Is it a production product or in beta or alpha? Is the company going to be around? To this, Cluff adds that shoppers should find out how much it costs to upgrade the product once it is bought. One PeopleSoft Inc. product he saw when he was in Fresno cost ten times as much to upgrade as to buy. He said that while he was there he had gotten the number down to three times as much in some cases.

The key question, said Fortune: “Am I talking to someone who is trying to sell me something or to someone trying to help me solve a problem?”

The bookend issue to that is how to gauge whether products are measuring up to the promised value proposition once they are purchased. Fortune said that problems are not always to be laid at the feet of the vendor. In some cases, the stated value proposition needs to be adjusted and in some cases the implementation needs to be changed. He generally had set one- and two-year procedures for monitoring big investments and spot-checked smaller purchases when he was a CIO, he said.

Overall, the CIOs said that they spend less time actually dealing with technology and more with helping the organization adjust to and deal with change. “The CIO is now to the process in the organization as the CFO is to finances,” says Cluff.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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