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The Proof Is In The Project

Merrill Lynch has strict Return-On-Investment standards for technology
Merrill Lynch puts all the financial data as well as related resource information around a project in Business Engine Network, so there's one place for all the facts needed to assess a project. "We can sit down and have very timely discussions with the businesspeople, and we can play what-if scenarios, rebalancing that portfolio and trying to see if we need to slow projects down or speed them up, depending on where we think the payback is and the time sensitivity of delivery," Balliet says.

Business Engine Network also helps Merrill Lynch manage IT spending globally. The company has about 600 technology people in India who report their time spent working on projects directly into the system. Some projects will have people working on them in England, India, Japan, and the United States, all of whom can be tracked through the network.

"We know our best foreign-currency exchange people are sitting in London, our best order-processing people are in Asia, and then we have the best people for regulatory issues in the U.S.," Balliet says.

The danger during this cost-cutting time is that companies could easily eliminate all new strategic development. "It's definable, it's easy to stop, and doesn't require a lot of creativity," Balliet says.

Instead, Merrill Lynch is trying to make sure it's doing the right projects at the right price. "How can we do strategic initiatives cheaper? Can we do them in India, or can we do them in a fixed-price contract?" Balliet asks. "And on the other side, what can we eliminate in the lower-value food chain, with the businesspeople's consent and cooperation, so that we can fund more strategic initiatives?"

ROI will remain a key management concern, at least as long as cost-cutting remains the central business focus, as it has for more than a year. However, there are some signs that companies are starting to look to more strategic initiatives focused on getting ahead of the competition and growing revenue.

Capco's Irving sees it, as does Ismail Pishori, worldwide general manager of the financial-markets segment at Hewlett-Packard. "People have come to realize that pure focus on cost reduction was having an impact on their ability to service customers and maybe even creating some operational risk in their organization, simply because they were really skimming down and putting the business processes at risk," Pishori says.

Will companies lose their zeal for ROI when budgets get a bit looser? Merrill Lynch began installing its Business Engine Network system in November 2001, with the final installation last month. About 8,000 people use it, including anyone who touches a project, from technology executives to developers.

"It's a one-stop shop for everything you need to know about a project," Balliet says. So one thing's for sure: If managers do decide that ROI isn't a top priority anymore, a lot of people are going to know about it.

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