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Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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IT Is Too Darn Slow

Is your IT shop the place where great business ideas grind to a halt? Here's how to speed things up.

The Innovation Feedback Loop

Technology doesn't just meet demand; it creates demand. That's another reason IT can't live in long, orderly project cycles.

Guess' experience is a great example of what HP's Mott calls the "innovation feedback loop," and it's a big reason he's trying to slash the average time it takes to complete an IT project to three months. IT can't set priorities for 10 projects spread over the next two years because, once projects one, two, and three are done, that will change what would have been four, five, and six. Guess could have tried to anticipate every feature it needed on its handhelds--or it could get devices out with core functionality and add features as salespeople figured out what's most important. "There's an innovation feedback loop that right now, in these long development cycles, IT constrains," Mott says.

OK, so 90-day projects are a nice theory. How will Mott get there?

First, it's worth noting how HP got down to six-month IT project cycles, since many companies aren't even there. One step was to staff each project for faster results. That means having 10 people on a project for six months rather than five people for a year. Mott also measured the number of IT locations involved in any project and tried to keep that number low, under the theory that proximity helps people work faster.

In measuring on-time delivery, Mott weighted projects based on their value--so four little projects on time and one huge one late doesn't equal 80% on-time delivery. Also, he used what he calls "time-phase boxing," comparing projects of similar length to see if they're hitting milestones on time, in order to spot delays sooner. So if the average three-month project moves into testing phase at six weeks, and project XYZ still isn't testing by week seven, the time-phase boxing metric would be flashing red. HP will keep leaning on these practices.

To squeeze IT projects down to 90 days, Mott is putting a lot of faith in automating more of his organization's testing scripts, "because too much time is spent just making sure everything still works right." (HP sells testing automation, via its Mercury acquisition.) Mott also wants developers using fewer tools and languages, rather than letting them pick whichever ones they like best. Having more people trained on a smaller set of skills will let HP move people across projects more freely. "We'll have multiple skills," he says, "but we can't have 500 skills."

IT also needs to understand which elements of speed matter most to their companies. Consider Eli Lilly using Amazon's infrastructure service for drug research. The discovery of a single new drug--and getting that drug through the entire research, development, and regulatory pipeline sooner--can change the future of the company. "For us, it's pipeline, pipeline, pipeline," said Heim, explaining the company's cloud strategy at last September's InformationWeek 500 Conference. "Anything we can do to further our knowledge, get products into the pipeline, and develop those more quickly is crucial to us."

That's why Lilly saw big value in trying Amazon's infrastructure as a service to speed the earliest stages of drug discovery, when a researcher might want to quickly model and test an idea. (The fact that early-stage research often involves relatively nonsensitive data that's not much of a security risk also played a part in Lilly moving those resources to the cloud.)

Perhaps no industry's IT organizations are feeling--or should be feeling--this speed pressure more acutely than those in the U.S. healthcare sector. If healthcare providers are going to cash in on federal subsidies for deploying electronic health records, the clock is ticking--not to just get them implemented, but to make sure doctors, nurses, and other clinicians apply them in specific ways that meet federal "meaningful use" guidelines. Oh, and they'll also be looking for ways to make patients healthier and lower the costs of treating them in the process.

IT needs to judge itself on whether it's fast enough at the things that matter most to the company--whether that's integrating new suppliers needed to launch a product or providing the IT resources to design and spec a product. "Those are real-world provisioning. … It's how fast can you go from zero to a billion in a product," Mott says. "Those companies that make the transition and cut down that cycle time will become the leading players in the field."

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