IT departments must adopt the process-optimization practices and productivity increases they've enabled in other parts of the business - First in a three-part series
But using a hybrid in-house/offshore-outsourced staffing model required Thompson and his team to spend considerable time formalizing their development processes for how a project moves from a local business-systems analyst to the offshore programmer. "I'm finding I have to dig much deeper into my business experience," says Thompson, whose background includes stints as a professional services manager in the health-care and retail industries. "I'm drawing on my profit and loss experience and field experience in this role."

LexisNexis, an online legal and business-information provider, is using its relationship with the Indian outsourcing firm InfoSys Technologies Ltd. to learn how it can get more efficient in its own development. LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc., wants to improve efficiency at the start of projects-when it's developing concepts and setting requirements-by borrowing some of InfoSys' tactics, including the use of storyboards and diagrams of user scenarios, rather than text-heavy documentation. "You tend to be less disciplined at the start of projects because the projects are more amorphous," says James Peck, chief product officer and senior VP.

LexisNexis' development organization has increased efficiency about 20% in the past 18 months, Peck estimates. But a big part of that improvement came from killing almost a third of the IT projects in the pipeline during one six-month reassessment.

As IT drives toward more efficiency, many managers find they gain the most from making sure IT staff are working on the right projects. At LexisNexis, that meant merging the product-management and IT staffs into one unit. Because online information is the company's product, every new offering requires IT involvement. Product managers work with revenue units' market planners to decide what products the market needs. Responsibility for making the offerings work and delivering them on time rests with the product management-IT group. "One of my goals is always to make the line between business need and engineer as short as possible," Peck says.

Levi Strauss & Co. also has beefed up its IT governance in the past few years. The clothing manufacturer uses a scorecard process to monitor investments and to make sure they're aligned with business goals. "Today it's about delivery, delivery, delivery," senior VP and CIO David Bergen says. "If you say it, then deliver it. And if you say it's going to get done in six months, it had better get done in six months."

Farrow at the Board of Trade says a vital part of his team's job is forcing a business sponsor to clearly define what he or she wants to accomplish with an IT project. Only then can technologists show how it will cut into their budget and make sure the business manager really wants the results at that price. "You have to put the business people through a fairly painful process," he says. Once the specs are agreed to, Board of Trade executives use a Kintana Inc. project-management system to track results. It's a tool that executives began using to track IT projects and now use to monitor the progress of every Board of Trade project.

Will this kind of business discipline stifle the innovation that's been so much a part of the technology industry? Farrow says no. He believes the process only makes it easier for IT staff to help turn business goals into reality. "Technology to a large degree is an enabler," he says. "If someone has a dream, you have to be able to say these are the alternatives to get there."

Plus, most IT pros just want a problem to solve and the means to do so. "The worst thing you can do is not put a challenge in front of them," Farrow says. That's a good thing. There's sure to be no shortage of challenges ahead for people in the business-technology industry.

Photos by Douglas Adesko

This is the first part of a three-part series about the I.T. workplace. You can read the other two parts of the series here:
  • Critical Path
    Workers worry the IT career path has become less promising. That's bad news for the industry. Second in a three-part series.
  • Sliver Of The Pie
    IT salaries are about the same as last year, and job satisfaction is down from two years ago. But the right mix of business-technology skills can still pay off. Third in a three-part series.