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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.

From Agile To Open Source

While cloud computing's the trendiest tool for IT speed, many IT pros will point to some long-standing practices as the best way to pick up the pace.

Agile development tops the list. Agile's had passionate advocates for decades, stipulating quick iterations of development followed by close collaboration with end users to confirm that developers are delivering what's needed. Companies such as UPS and General Motors are adding visualization software to the agile process, letting IT mock up what interfaces and transactions will look like to get business feedback before any code's written. Yet that also points to a limit to agile's ability to speed up IT: Business unit partners must be equally committed to it. IT can't do iterative development--what Shah calls constant "test and learn" mode--if business colleagues aren't putting in the time.

New converts to agile also tend to bring a certain religious zeal to its use, and Bleum's McKinnon warns that some projects are still better in traditional waterfall development, like those with very clear specs such as porting an old Cobol system over to .Net. A shop's goal should be development agility, being able to switch among styles. "A one-size-fits-all methodology will inhibit speed," he says.

Using open source software is another long-standing practice with potential to increase speed, since the code can be used in prototypes without a lot of vendor negotiations. Manpower is using open software for one proof-of-concept project, knowing it might go to something else later. But open source lets it get started at low cost and maximum flexibility.

Outsourcing, as always, is a flashpoint in the debate over speed. Some will turn to outsourcing to get the variable capacity or skills they need to move faster. Others will avoid outsourcing, believing speed comes from in-house IT pros who know the business and can iterate relevant software more quickly. None of these methods, from private clouds to agile development to outsourcing, guarantees speed. Companies need more than tools: They need an IT strategy that emphasizes speed.

Chris Peretta
State Street's Perretta measures time to when customers see results. "When does their stopwatch start, not mine."

Meet The Need

IT hasn't been slow for a lack of effort. Speed--in terms of delivering end results to customers--simply hasn't been central to the IT mission. Over the last decade, cost cutting has been more likely to dominate the agenda, both in terms of cutting how much IT spends and in using IT to squeeze costs out of business operations.

That tendency has left a huge strategic mismatch in companies. In a survey last year of chief operating officers at electronics and high-tech companies worldwide, Accenture found that 60% of COOs agreed that "building flexible and efficient IT systems" to expand ties inside and outside the company is more important after the economic downturn; yet only 7% said that building those flexible systems is "driving operating model decisions." And money isn't the problem: 95% said they have enough capital to execute their global strategy.

Perretta, State Street's CIO, thinks IT leaders are getting what they ask for. He notes that at most companies, the IT architecture group reports to the CTO, whose main charge is to optimize infrastructure costs. At State Street, chief architect Kevin Sullivan's team reports to Perretta, and its mandate is to collapse the time it takes for the company to deliver IT-based business results.

The demand for IT is unquestionably there. The reason IT's under the gun is because business leaders know they can't get anywhere without IT. Listen again to those COOs in the Accenture survey. Seventy percent said IT is critical to global expansion, though only 21% think their corporate IT systems are capable of supporting it.

This gap explains why CIOs are so impatient. IT is seen as too slow precisely because the business demand is so intense. IT needs to step up to that challenge. --With John Foley, Doug Henschen, and Rob Preston

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