The IT Advantage

Pinpoint where technology can turn loose energy.

Its conventional wisdom to say, "whats measured is what matters," and its clearly useful to define IT goals in measurable terms. Thats not the same thing, though, as saying that something matters just because its measurable. An IT bulls-eye is a dubious achievement if it hits an irrelevant target.

I heard a tale of poor targeting at the IT seminar hosted late last month by the Partners in Business program at Utah State University, where my own keynote comments were titled "The Laws of Second Looks." Ill offer some thoughts from that presentation next week, but right now Id like to focus on the remarks of Niel Nickolaisen, formerly CIO at FranklinCovey, a vendor of time management tools and services.

FranklinCovey, said Nickolaisen, took pride in its order fulfillment performance. "It was a standard comment in the annual report: All orders received by noon are shipped the same day," he told the audience of 200 regional business leaders at the Utah State campus in Logan. "A few million dollars later," he continued, the following years report would proudly declare, "All orders received by 1 p.m. are shipped the same day." And so on.

With further effort and investment, the company had pushed the deadline for same-day shipment to 3 p.m., said Nickolaisen. Then customers were asked if they actually cared; FranklinCovey learned, Nickolaisen ruefully reported, "that these people used their Franklin day planners and had reminders on their calendars to order their refills." In other words, the investment in continually shrinking the lead time for order fulfillment was not a benefit to the business. Said Nickolaisen, "It only needed to be good enough."

Im not telling this story to encourage a lowering of IT aspirations. IT is often the best route to excellence in customer satisfaction. I am, however, underlining Nickolaisens suggestion that commodity IT often can be pretty darned good, especially in performing functions that every business needs and for which theres strong competitive pressure among IT providers. In these situations, anything "better" than off-the-shelf products may be merely irrelevant—and excessively expensive as well.

"Eighty to 90 percent of the stack can be standard and simple," Nickolaisen said, pointing to customer-facing components such as the electronic shopping cart as examples. In-house IT talent can then be freed to focus on elements such as on-site promotions and overall ease-of-business aids, where competitive differentiation is effective.

Nickolaisen challenged head-on the perception that a massive system, such as an ERP initiative, needs to be expensive and time-consuming and involve high technical risk. The goal for any such system, he asserted, is a three-week implementation—his estimate of "how long it takes to convert data and train users in using an off-the-shelf product."

Ideally, Nickolaisen argued, IT management should sit down with stakeholders and explain, for example, "This is the way that we will do our purchasing—its the industry best practice." Custom solutions, he said, too often go to great effort to preserve second-rate processes that represent decades of legacy rather than thoughtful design. "The only real candidates for differentiation are customer-facing processes," he said.

Im not prepared to go all the way down that road with him. This is, after all, the viewpoint of a publisher and retailer rather than a manufacturer or high-technology vendor. Design, collaboration and process-improvement initiatives do represent opportunities for companies whose competitiveness depends on achieving superior time to market for innovative products or dramatic productivity improvements.

But the general point is sound: Every IT pro should ask, "What can be done with IT to create specific enterprise advantage? How can disruptive innovation tilt the playing field in the right direction?"

As this column moves into the Labs section of eWEEK, it will sharpen its focus on points where technology is turning loose new energy—the kind that can be channeled into valuable change. The column title, "Epicenters," reflects that goal.

I hope youll help me circle the spots on the map that deserve examination in weeks to come.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at