IT Flexibility Key to Alignment With Business Goals

Oct 25, 2007 (09:10 AM EDT)

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The gains to be made from having the business and IT groups work in tandem are great. A survey of 152 business leaders who've grown their companies beyond 100 employees, conducted this summer by O'Keeffe & Co. for IT distributor CDW Corp., shows that 61% of those who saw their investment in IT as strategic or competitive reported double-digit annual growth over the past five years.

The Tasty Baking Co. is clearly reaping the benefits of an aligned relationship. IT stepped into a mission-critical role at the Philadelphia-based bakery on Nov. 1, 2004, when the midsize business flipped the switch on its new SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The system helped turn the art of inventory management -- internal visibility into supply chain and production processes and forecasting -- into a science, key to the company's goals of keeping the right products on the shelf and avoiding pile-ups in the warehouse. It reported a 2.9% net sales increase in the second quarter of 2007 vs. the comparable period in 2006, which resulted from a 3.2% increase in unit volume. CEO Charles Pizzi credits the results to the "focused execution of our core strategies -- building the brand, delivering product innovation, growing routes and new markets, and driving operational excellence."

DON'T MISS: The Importance of Aligning Business and IT Goals

Improving operational efficiencies continues to be a strategic goal for the organization, including improving processes around Tasty's route sales. CIO Brendan O'Malley is supporting that with the recent development and deployment of a mobile system for the route drivers. "One of the key pillars of our strategy was driving our route sales, and this investment lined right up with that. It gives our route drivers better information about what they do and gives us better information about what's happening out there, so we can mange it better," O'Malley says. About 500 route drivers have been given rugged Windows mobile devices that let them track their inventory, orders, distribution, and sales to each store -- no small feat given today's complexities in servicing different channels with different programs.

"Our sales distributors' jobs have gotten incredibly complex. They have more products and more complex programs that they have to execute at retail. It's no longer the case where they can just go to a big grocery store and pack it out with product," he says. The mobile deployment gives them an added edge to deal with that: Drivers, for example, can be alerted that the last time they serviced a certain store a certain product didn't sell well, or that it's time to talk to the manager about a special deal and extra in-store displays. "Tying all those pieces of information together lets you have better execution at the shelf," says O'Malley.

Flexibility Aids Alignment
At law firm Vedder, Price, Kaufman & Kammholz P.C., a technical committee helps Maureen Durack stay aligned both with the overall strategic plans and goals, as well as with the needs of the individual practice areas. The firm -- with offices in Chicago; New York; Washington, D.C.; and New Jersey -- specializes in corporate services, labor and employment services, and litigation and intends to grow by providing better and additional services to existing clients. These practice areas may have unique demands or require alternatives to the normal flow of business processes to deliver on client expectations. And this must be taken into account by Durack, the director of management information systems at the business-oriented law firm with more than 240 attorneys.

Take, for example, the corporate-level edict to put in place records management technology to manage both electronic and paper-based data, a strategic project over the last few years. Law firms have historically been well organized -- on paper. They've had to be as clients count on their ability to be responsive to requests for information.

Vedder Price's files were meticulously maintained in hard copy versions, meaning that electronic data and e-mails used to be printed out to become part of the system. "As data evolved and became more dynamic, we had to adapt our policies and procedures," says Durack. But that adaptation couldn't be a one-size-fits-all story, as the corporate law practice's records management filing requirements differ drastically from the litigation practice's filing requirements. So, the challenge included adapting what's been in place on paper to managing the electronic side, and making sure that those electronic filing processes are tailored to the needs of individual practice areas. "You have to be flexible enough to understand their business problem and change the project you're working on to accommodate that," she says.

Overall, Durack says, the idea is to keep technology strategies and procedures broad, "because there are individual strategies and practice area strategies that tend to be more detailed and tend to require more hands-on attention so those practice areas can thrive." When there are questions around how to prioritize different requests from individual practice areas or resolve conflicts, Durack can rely on the technical committee to provide guidance. The committee is largely composed of non-IT people -- attorneys, the lead executive team, the CEO, and managing and administrative directors -- with just two IT staffers.

"We generally meet once a quarter and as needed. The technology committee members are my advisory group, as well as my first line of communication within the practice areas and departments," she says. That includes helping her communicate to attorneys and staff in the various practice areas in which projects are a priority. "Because our business is so dynamic, it would fail miserably if we weren't keeping our fingers on the pulse of our firm. Things could change so fast -- a priority that existed in January may not exist in June."

None of these strategic efforts could succeed, though, without an infrastructure that she can rely on to be secure and available even at a moment's notice when lawyers have to set up "war rooms" away from their offices, Durack says. Vedder Price partners with CDW for those needs. In fact, it's critical for the information services group to be as embracing of a strategy to switch gears quickly to support an immediate client need as the firm itself is. "The immediate client need is going to outweigh most general projects that are going on. If there is a deal that is very hot or a case that requires immediate attention, as there are throughout the year, we do what is needed to get the work done," she says.

DON'T MISS: The Importance of Aligning Business and IT Goals

Still Tweaking
Few organizations have worked out all the kinks in keeping IT and business aligned. At DxCG Inc., a predictive modeling software company, for example, VP and CTO Atul Mistry has literally diagrammed out a solutions architecture that shows the business' overall problem space -- decreasing the cost of health care -- and how DxCG fits into it -- predictive modeling software -- and the web of potential partnerships or acquisitions it could make to close the loop with other health care services or systems.

This schematic helps inform the approach his team takes to issues such as system design or interface development, to make such interactions easier. He'd like to see other parts of the business adopt the idea -- for instance, the marketing staff could use a solutions architecture diagram to discover opportunities to reach out to providers of care management systems for potential joint marketing campaigns. "This makes sense to me -- being a technologist, I work well with diagrams. But I think it's a lot of educating other people on how a tool like that could be used," he says.

For its part, Tasty Baking still struggles when it comes to dealing with the work that isn't quite a full-fledged IT project but is something more than IT support, to ensure that those issues that need to be addressed to deliver on corporate strategy are quickly dealt with and others wait their turn in line.

Says CIO O'Malley, "We'll end of up doing the work, but we want to make sure we make the right decisions about which comes first, which is required and on strategy, and if it needs to rise up to a certain level that it does, and does not get buried in an ongoing stream of smaller work."

The challenges of alignment can't be underplayed, but they can be met if IT leaders keep their eyes on the prize: Contributing to business competitiveness and becoming the strategic asset they so obviously are in the most successful companies.

Jennifer Zaino has served in senior and executive editor roles at publications including InformationWeek, Network Computing, HomePC, and PC Magazine. Currently she is a freelancer covering business technology issues, including IT management and best practice frameworks, IT architectures, and virtualization.

Photo of Maureen Durack courtesy of Vedder Price.