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Executive Forum: A New Approach To Tough Times: So What?

Now's the time for IT execs to focus on fundamentals, teamwork, and hard work.

Demonstrating business value and achieving business alignment have been the talk in official circles recently. But when IT executives gather informally, inevitably the conversation is dominated by how tough times have been and the relentless demand to do more with less, to which I say, "So what?" We're not just going through a tight economy, we're undergoing a global economic shift. Not only are the good old days not returning, but we should never have spent money that way in the first place.

For too long, information technology has been perceived as the NBA players of the corporate world, with endlessly increasing costs and habitual underperformance. But our environment was an artificial one. IT was an unfathomable discipline that the organization left alone because it didn't understand it. Management was happy to defer much of its oversight to CIOs. Overruns and delays were tolerated.

The tough times we lament are the new times--period. Instead of our preoccupation with the glass half empty, we should focus our energies on trying to convert every dollar entrusted to us into a winning dollar for our enterprises. What delineates a world-class IT organization isn't its budget, but the fundamentals: teamwork, resourcefulness, business smarts, and plain old hard work.

Continuing the NBA analogy, consider my hometown Detroit Pistons and their recent thrashing of the overpaid and pampered Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals (no offense to my L.A. friends). The Pistons illustrated that focusing on fundamentals and teamwork can overcome seemingly impossible financial disadvantages.

At Delphi, we're putting as much focus on basics as on major new initiatives. This means projecting, tracking, and reconciling IT spending with the same rigor as any other business unit and with the same commitment as we would with our own personal financial portfolios. And, despite a particularly tight automotive industry in the recent past, we've invested in global project-management training and certification, as well as launched an initiative to certify all IT employees in Six Sigma. And it's not enough to achieve these goals, but to operationalize them. Once team members receive their Green Belt certification, demonstration of its usage is required in their annual personal performance plans.

Resourcefulness is an important characteristic, but one that the IT field seems to have just learned recently--and grudgingly. When we initiated an aggressive cost-reduction program at Delphi a few years ago, many of our IT executives were more than a little reluctant. Now it's one of the things that generates the most pride among the leadership team. During the "good times," information technology became so accustomed to writing large checks that we lost the discipline and ingenuity necessary to ensure adequate value from our spending. We need IT leaders who are as business savvy as they are technically savvy. I expect the members of my team to be excellent and well-rounded business managers in their own right, scrutinizing IT investments through both financial and technical filters.

I'm very pleased that IT value and business alignment are hot topics, but I wonder where they were before. Better late then never, I guess, but we must now seriously commit ourselves to them. This cannot be superficial.

There's a problem-solving concept called the "5 Whys," which Delphi has embraced. The concept states that when faced with quality problems, you not only ask why, but you ask why to that explanation, and continue this five times until you get to the root cause. Why not something similar for IT value, based on the question, "So what?" Five iterations may be too many, but we must dig deeper than the typical "faster, cheaper, and better" in responding to the question of IT value.

Likewise with business alignment: This, too, must be more than a one-off exercise. We need to engage our entire organizations to understand, and hopefully anticipate, where business technology can provide results related to organizational goals and priorities. We must convert this effort into a road map--both short- and long-term--and trust the approach enough to follow directions that may be counter to our opinions. Finally, and back to the fundamentals, we need to execute flawlessly.

Of course, easier said than done. What I'm prescribing will sometimes call for shaking up our IT organizations, challenging popular business projects with "so what?" and maybe even breaking a little glass. And so, what's most needed is courage and conviction.

Times are tough, and they'll stay that way. To quote Carly Simon, "These are the good old days."

Bette Walker is VP and CIO at transportation-component supplier Delphi Corp., No. 14 on this year's InformationWeek 500 list.

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