eWEEK Labs Technology Editor Peter Coffee recently moderated a roundtable discussion with members of eWEEKs Corporate Partner Advisory Board to gauge their IT priorities for the coming year.
Coffee: Id like to do a quick rundown of the list of participating Corporate Partners to see what everybodys high points are and drill down from there.
Gunnerson: Given the current economic forecast, were pretty much flat. Well replace things that are broken, but we have no major new things happening. If anything, we might look at consolidating operations.
Rosen: Our priorities are primarily based on the presidents management agenda—consolidation and reduction, A-76 [competitive sourcing] studies, outsourcing, and those kinds of things.
Wilson: For 2004, our focus is mainly on our products and services to our clients within the company and keeping the costs that were going to charge them down.
Benincasa: A lot of what were seeing for 2004 is the appetite for disk space, storage, mobile computing and security, and thats where we see a lot of our funds going.
Brown: The IT budgets are split across our state. However, centralized here at this system, were looking at shared implementation. Were moving to one learning management system, which is pretty big. We are doing a lot of applied research and are spending some money in mobile.
Inks: The budget for this year was basically flat. Next year is sort of a wild guess because were in the middle of being acquired.
Smith: We actually just turned the corner on our new fiscal year, which is July through June, so well get half the benefit of the next calendar year. Our budgets, both operating and capital, have been reduced going into the start of this fiscal year, and I think primarily because were hedging. In the nonprofit world, we typically lag behind a full economic recovery by some measure of months.
Ive broken down the focus on fiscal year 2004 into two specific areas: securing some of our critical assets, as well as improving operations and lowering costs through technology.
On the first side, were going to be looking at implementing a digital asset management system. Weve got a lot of photographs and ownership issues that we need to fold into disaster recovery and provide cleaner and better access to our staff and field offices around the world.
In the second area, were going to be doing a financials intelligence pilot for decision support against our Oracle Financials applications. Were looking to implement software distribution through multiple phases to allow us to do things faster and cleaner from a help desk standpoint, by reimaging desktops and deploying applications across the data network. We are going to be looking at outsourcing—via an ASP [application service provider] solution—our [human resources information] systems, and tying that into our timekeeping and other interfaces to our financial systems.
Dugger: Id say most of my government clients this year are kind of in the hunker-down mode.
The No. 1 thing I see most of my people going nuts over is spam. Financewise, most of them are just doing incremental upgrades and keeping operations running while they ride out the budget tidal waves right now.
Baradet: Were kind of finishing up our fifth year in our new building, going into the sixth year, so we have a lot of projects that are finishing up, a lot of integration with PeopleSoft thats being implemented at the university level. So Im going to be writing out a plan for us for the next few years this coming year, covering digital asset management, digital video production. Were going to be kind of splitting the hive, so to speak, and sending a number of folks out of the building to another facility, so were going to have to look into how to support those folks.
Our budget is pretty much flat, but with a lot of big projects winding up, we wont have those expenses, so well have some money to look at some new areas, including supporting of wireless handheld devices for the students.
Rabuck: With my consulting work in the mobile/wireless space, what Im seeing is people looking to take Wi-Fi and apply something to it, rather than just make it a wireless sort of solution.
Conati: This year and into next year, well be focusing on basically enhancing our [enterprise resource planning] system with some enterprise reporting tools and some business portal tools that were going to be integrating, as well as some [customer relationship management] tools. Other than that, though, things are flat, and even though we have approved capital budgets, its a major process to actually get to the next step of getting those things approved.
Evans: Right now, it looks like enterprise computing, storage and document management.
Siconolfi: Were bringing in CRM [customer relationship management] and content management software. … The big thing were seeing in applications is not so much going out and buying an end-to-end application that does everything or claims to do everything, like CRM, but having all the tools we need to put an application together that solves a problem for the business area. In one particular case, it has to do with just making sure we have all the right tools.
Coffee: Are there any substantial shifts toward open source as a cost-reduction measure?
Benincasa: Were looking to evaluate open source as an alternative in 2004. We dont have the answers yet, but its something were definitely looking into.
Coffee: What about networks and network management?
Benincasa: On the network side, were looking to spend some money to be able to better manage the workstations, deployment, patch management. Weve got to find a better way, so were hoping to make some investments there.
Coffee: Several of you have mentioned handhelds, Tablet PCs and other nondesktop, nonworkstation form factors. Are handhelds becoming enterprise devices rather than just e-mail clients and personal organizers?
Baradet: [For our students,] its more a convenience issue. They dont want to drag their notebooks around when they dont need to use them, so theyre really more interested in wireless e-mail and calendaring. So, from that point of view, [mobile devices] fit in with what were going to do. Were about to put up a test [Microsoft Corp.] Exchange 2003 server, and well start fussing around with that to see how well its going to work for [the students and faculty]. But were not actively developing any specific applications for wireless handheld devices.
Coffee: Anything to add in terms of workstations and notebooks?
Wilson: Were seeing a big move—not only in our company but in others that were in contact with—to leasing laptops for three years instead of two. [This is due to] a combination of factors: the budget, the economy and a new generation of laptops.
Coffee: Are there any concerns about the continued viability of some of your key IT providers? If so, what is your thinking on continuity across the various mergers and shake-ups that are taking place there?
Brown: We are concerned about acquisitions and mergers. We had a departure plan, or an escape plan, for one of our systems, and that plan was purchased by the company and was killed. Thats why were looking at interoperability and standards.
Baradet: Our main focus has been building bridges between the systems that we run and the central data marts that we pull from to do our own reporting and augment the data that we collect locally. So its more that we need to keep an eye on this sort of thing. If you were to talk to the central IT folks, they would probably be a lot more worried.
Gunnerson: We have a concern over the continued exiting of Web co-location and hosting services. I have the same concern for, obviously, carriers because they keep going in and out of Chapter 11. We understand that thats not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly feels like it increases our risk.
Coffee: Are you making more of an effort to maintain relationships with multiple sources than you might have in the past?
Gunnerson: Were moving right now to bring Web hosting back into the company.
Smith: About a year and a half ago, I set us on a course to kind of hedge that side of the industry, which has been quite volatile during the last couple of years. We have actually bought outright all of our servers, as opposed to leasing. Weve bought all our Oracle licenses for the back-end databases. So we actually are in a position where … were a little bit more nimble in how we move.
Coffee: With overall IT budgets flat, will companies squeeze the balloon in one place to make more money available for security?
Gunnerson: I would say, in general, no. For several years now, security has been a part of almost every project we do. So the general cost of security doesnt seem to be going up.
Coffee: Has anyone been seeing costs associated with regulatory compliance in areas such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or the USA Patriot Act or the new California Security Breach Information Act?
Rabuck: HIPAA has probably the biggest effect. In fact, sometimes the common reply is to ignore the technology if [the feeling is] its secure enough, rather than look for the security wrapper to make it secure.
Coffee: So legislative mandates for security are retarding the adoption of new technology?
Rabuck: I think thats the reaction if people are unsure or if there is stuff in the popular press that says, “Hey, this is not secure” or something.
Coffee: Many of you have mentioned the spam problem. Is the cost in wasted user time, wasted storage space or the various technical means youre evaluating to contain unsolicited e-mail?
Benincasa: Weve seen costs on the spamming and so forth and peoples time and in bandwidth consumption as the mail is coming in. In addition, the scanning tools require a lot of maintenance, and people have to keep an eye on them, maintain them and keep them updated. We have not had good luck with that. So the combination just takes a toll on the financials of an organization and on peoples time.
Coffee: So a lot of the cost that youre talking about is not IT staff as such, but its still perceived as a cost that IT staff must contain?
Benincasa: Exactly. Its across the board. IT has to try to stop it. Its hard to do, so the users have to go through their mail, and they waste a lot of time.
Coffee: One of the things that has popped up on the radar is the question of whether IT costs, especially in areas like software development and data entry and user support, can be reduced by going to non-U.S. providers. Are any of you actively exploring offshore providers, or are any of you having experiences where you find yourselves dealing with offshore providers that have been subcontracted by your name-brand IT providers?
Rabuck: Obviously, there are issues related to H-1B visas that are still out there, and Im not sure the solution is just sort of cutting those sources off. I mean, we have to realize its a global world now, and thats the reality of it. If the service can be purchased somewhere else, Im not thrilled with the concept, but its going to happen.
Smith: Were not evaluating or considering offshore types of development initiatives. I think that even though there may be some cost breaks, to me it is not just a cost issue; its a manageability issue. Its trying to control quality and resources and get better integration of project teams so that we understand exactly what were going to be doing and how were going to be going about it, so that we dont have to make more corrections the further we get into an implementation cycle. So Im not even considering the offshore component at all.
Coffee: One of the things weve heard a lot in the last year is that, with a lot of good people out of work, the pool of highly experienced candidates is bigger than it used to be. On the other side, people whose 401(k)s have really taken it in the chops are perhaps postponing retirement, and therefore you have fewer new people coming into an organization and bringing with them familiarity with and training in new technologies. How has the economic environment affected your ability to recruit and also to retain and retrain the people you already have?
Rosen: Were under a hiring freeze, so we just hire more contractors. But what we see is a lot more applicants to the contractors, a lot more puffery in their résumés. So theres a much broader spectrum of people applying for jobs because youre really trying to find the right people for the job. Its almost just as tough as it always was.
Coffee: Do you think people are being driven by a perception that they have to list certain key buzzword skills on their résumés?
Rosen: I think thats part of it, especially as people move more and more to [computerized] résumé processing, where a system is just looking for keywords.
Brown: Im seeing a shotgun approach to sending out résumés, which makes it real difficult to go through them.
Smith: I think youre seeing some underlines of underemployment come through on the résumés—people who are employed in jobs that they really dont want to be in, but theyre working in those areas. Theyre not paying as much attention when theyre actually submitting their résumés.
Coffee: So the perverse result of all of these people out in the labor pool is that your recruiting job is actually getting more difficult because the noise level is so high?
Smith: I think it is.
But when you look at your total cost of identifying and recruiting and bringing a qualified person on board, its actually not going down very much.
Smith: I wouldnt think it would be going down. I would be willing to guess that it might be flat or rising a little bit.
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