Sunday, December 17, 2006

Companies who understand IT get the benefits

Anyone who read my last blog entry might be wondering what it was that I found so interesting in the Sloan Management Review, well, it was this piece Generating Premium Returns on Your IT Investments which got my attention.

I've been running across the term IT Portfolio Management for a while now and wondering what it was all about.  You can always make an educated guess from such a term but then you risk getting it wrong or missing the important points.  Quite often IT Portfolio Management was associated with the term IT Governance which is something else I thought I should know more about.  Well, this piece on IT investment did three things: it set me straight about what is IT Portfolio Management, it inspired me to read more about IT Governance (I'll write something about this soon) and it provided some interesting statistics about IT success.

So, what is IT Portfolio Management?  Basically it is the idea that organizations should know what IT projects they are undertaking and should review them as a whole rather than just a one at a time basis.  The idea is that while you might have four big IT projects on the go, all of which make sense in their own right, when you look at them collectively you see that two of them are doing the same thing.

Now this is one of those things that sounds obvious.  How could any reasonable company not know it was funding overlapping or even competing projects?  Yet this happens, its quite possible large companies don't know every project that is happening, in a geographically dispersed company things get more difficult still.  Add in the way many companies distribute IT projects to business units and its quite clear that the investment group in Australia might be doing a project that looks a lot like the new business group in Sweden.

So the first step in IT Portfolio Management is simply to catalogue all your IT projects.  The next step is to review them all and then... well this is were the SMR piece is really focused.  This suggests that companies should categorise each project as: Strategic, Informational, Transactional or Infrastructure.  Each company should also decide what percentage of the IT budget to allocate to each of these types of project and use that as a management tool for managing the whole protfolio.

Well that's the idea in a nutshell, I won't go on about it any more.  The interesting thing that arises from this research is that the authors identify two types of company: those that are IT savvy - i.e. those that understand IT and can exploit IT - and the then those who are not IT savvy.

Those companies that are IT savvy can have higher profits the year after doing an IT project, typically $247 extra profit for every $1 invested in IT.  So for these companies doing IT project makes a lot of sense.

For the other companies, the non-IT savvy companies, the reverse is true.  Doing IT projects reduces subsequent profits, typically they make $909 profit less profit for each $1 spent on IT the year before.  In other words: these companies would be better off not doing IT projects.  (Which is worrying from a long term point of view.)

What occurs to me is that we can link all of this back to Nicholas Carr's arguement IT Doesn't Matter.  Carr argued that IT was no longer strategic and companies should concentrate on commodity IT.  Of course many people (including myself) took exception to this and argued the contrary.  Now perhaps we have an answer to the discussion, and its answer using one of those re-occurring business ideas: segmentation.

Carr is right, for some companies IT is not important, for those companies who are not IT savvy, they should get away from IT and find some other way to improve their business.  For other companies, namely the IT savvy ones, IT is important and can produce real benefits.

So the answer to the question: “Is IT important?” is simply; “it depends.”

Before finishing there is one more points that struck me in the Sloan piece.  One of the recommendations is: Companies should learn from post-implementation reviews and formal training.  This gives two action points.

Firstly, companies do not invest enough in IT training - typically less than 2% of the IT budget.  They optimistically think that giving someone new software is enough.  It isn't, you need to train people in it.  I've lost count of how many times I've seen this done.  Being on the development side I hear about companies who buy software but don't buy the training, or users who see the software as too complicated (it usually is) but can't get any more training; or, perhaps the worst of all, the manager who believes his staff can learn a new package (or even programming language) by reading the manual.

People are great learners, they will find a way of learning new software and even complex languages so the manager are right, why spend the money?  Simply: providing the training will help it happen much, much faster.  You want your project sooner?  You want your product delivered quicker?  Want to see an improved ROI?  Then spend the money on the training, don't leave it to trial and error and manuals.

Second point; post-implementation and in-process review help companies realise the benefits of IT projects, motivate the staff and improve organizational learning thus making the company more IT.  In other words, Retrospectives make a difference.

Too many companies talk about doing retrospectives but very very few companies actually do them.  The reasons for not doing them vary, and often when they are done they are done badly so fail to maximise the learning and change.  When they do happen and are done right they make a massive difference.

Now the question is: do you want your company to be IT savvy?  If so, start doing the retrospectives and giving people the training.  If not, then I suggest you save your money and get out of IT altogether.

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