Mar 16 2009

Uncommonly Parallel

Five IT chiefs offer smart tips for keeping technology costs down and alignment with business goals up in a tight economy.

Photo: Quantrell Colbert
Beach Clark, vice president of IT at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, says it’s time to break out all tools at your disposal to better align IT with business goals.

Companies that want to align their IT departments with core business goals should start by asking a simple question: Do our IT investments match the company’s top priorities?

Too often, companies find that IT is out of synch with the rest of the company. And with businesses of all types and sizes feeling the sting of the economic downturn, its time to close the gap between the perception of strong technology best practices and the perhaps not-so-pleasant reality. Five IT chiefs offered these ideas to BizTech for effectively aligning your IT team, your business and your budget:

Work off a zero-based budget. Now’s the time to get creative about cost-cutting. There’s fat somewhere, so trim it before you’re asked. “It should be a tough time for a lot of people,” says Beach Clark, vice president of IT at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.

To help streamline its IT capital expenditures in 2009, the aquarium is planning to defer a significant amount of hardware and software purchases for the coming year, Clark says.

But the aquarium does plan to evaluate hardware and software purchases on a case-by-case basis where projects for different business units are expected to generate a healthy return on investment, he says. “We’ve basically gone back to a zero-based budget type of approach. If one of the business leaders wants to work on a project they feel will help increase revenues or cut costs, we’ll take that to the CEO. We’ll shift costs from another department to IT.”

Remove the perception that IT is only a cost center. David Michel, director of technology at law firm Turner Padget Graham & Laney in Columbia, S.C., says too often top management views IT as an expense and not an asset. Change that perception, he says, by accurately documenting how much a project costs, explaining how the firm will recoup that cost later or avoid new costs in the future, and showcasing a tangible benefit.

“What I try to do is show top management: ‘Here’s the cost, here’s the benefit over three years, and here’s what will happen if we opt not to do it,’ ” Michel explains.

Dawn Bridges concurs. The CTO of architectural design firm Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott in Boston says whenever her staff deploys new technology, it’s to increase the billable hours designers and architects spend with clients. She says management’s commitment to make the professional staff more mobile over the past couple of years has helped the company move significantly toward its goal of a 75 percent billable rate.

Hire business-savvy tech staffers. If you’re lucky enough to be hiring, recruit people with sharp customer service skills and a business background who might take on some extra work. Athelene Gieseman, CIO of law firm Stinson Morrison Hecker in Kansas City, Mo., says for every job opening, she has the top 10 people come in and take an online test, then two or three finalists come back for formal interviews.

“It’s not a right-or-wrong type of test,” Gieseman says. “We’re trying to get an idea of how people think, how they would solve a networking issue or handle a service request from one of the attorneys in the office,” she says, adding that the firm also evaluates candidates on how they dress.

Photo: Jeff Amberg
Turner Padget Graham & Laney’s David Michel documents a return on investment for every IT project.

“This is a law firm, and people have to dress properly,” she adds, pointing out that during the interview she stresses that everything IT does focuses on helping the lawyers and support staff as they serve clients. If job candidates don’t convey an enthusiasm for working with lawyers and serving clients, they are not hired. Although the firm will take chances with technology and wants to attract top IT talent, Gieseman says, “We won’t deploy something just because it’s cool technology.”

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Keeping close contact with outside business partners and clients is admittedly crucial, but keeping close contact with the people inside your company can prove equally important to information technology.

For that reason, Michel conducts what he calls “fireside chats.” At least twice a year, he visits each of the law firm’s five offices throughout South Carolina to hold meet-and-greets with the firm’s lawyers and secretaries.

Better communication helped Delta Dental grow 50% without increasing staff.
Source: Karl Mudra, CIO, Delta Dental

“What I’ll do is buy them lunch and find out what our IT staff could be doing better,” Michel says. “We now have a much more robust case management system deployed, thanks to what I learned during some of those lunch meetings.”

Improve how you communicate. Karl Mudra, CIO of dental claims processor Delta Dental of Missouri, says he knows he’s making progress when he’s consistently invited to meet with top management, clients and business partners.

Mudra says a few years ago, during a lunch meeting with a third-party outsourcer, he suggested a tool that could more effectively automate claims data management. At the time, only 8 percent of the St. Louis, Mo., company’s claims made it through the system successfully. This meant that 92 percent had to be updated manually with information, such as correct spelling of names, addresses and birth dates of patients.

“We increased the number to 28 percent, and today 85 percent of our claims are handled automatically,” says Mudra, who credits the IT department’s face time with key management and the outsourcer for sparking this upturn.

Thomas Hoffman contributed to this article.