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Innovative tech projects won't slow down for some

What recession? These IT shops are pressing ahead with emerging-technology initiatives with a keen eye on future revenue potential.

By Thomas Hoffman
December 29, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Like a lot of organizations, Aspen Skiing Co. has zero-based all of its operating budgets for 2010, so approval is needed for any expenditure at all, not just increases in spending. And that, of course, means justifying all areas of IT spending for the new year.

But that austerity doesn't mean that the company, which operates four resort mountains in the Aspen/Snowmass, Colo., area, will scrap its investment in emerging technologies.

In fact, Aspen Skiing plans to expand its deployment of state-of-the-art radio frequency identification technology. Last season, it embedded RFID tags in its customers' season passes and installed automated access gates at the resorts. This winter, it's including RFID in all daily lift tickets as well. One potential future project involves using RFID tags to track all rental skis and boots at the four mountains. The company will also extend the RFID program so that ski passes can be used as stored-value cards in any of its retail shops and restaurants, says Paul Major, managing director of technology.

The expanded use of RFID technologies "helps us to identify our truly loyal customers," says Major.

Aspen Skiing is also designing smartphone applications that send alerts to customers' mobile phones when they're at one of its resorts, offering them product or service discounts and notifying them about upcoming resort activities, says Major. The types of iPhone and BlackBerry applications the company is developing "are potential revenue drivers," which could easily justify the small amount of money the company has set aside for such skunk works projects, says Major. (Read "7 smartphone predictions for 2010".)

Aspen Skiing is hardly alone in its efforts. Computerworld's 2010 Forecast survey of 312 IT executives found that despite tight budgets and a gloomy economic outlook, most companies (65%) aren't hesitating to try new technologies, and 32% of the respondents said their companies will continue to value experimentation with new technologies. Meanwhile, 51% said they won't cut back on efforts to use technology to create new business innovations.

As companies continue to scrutinize their IT spending through at least the first half of this year, they will generally spend "a little bit less on R&D stuff and on blue-sky innovations," says Alex Cullen, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. As with Aspen Skiing's skunk works project bucket, funding for emerging-technology initiatives often falls under "untracked spending" at many organizations, says Cullen.

Still, he adds, it's important for CIOs to tie emerging-technology initiatives directly to the company's business strategy to gain executive buy-in.

Riding the curve

Technologies that might seem passé at some organizations are considered quite cutting-edge at others. Here's a look at a pest control company and a local government agency that are pushing the envelope in their respective industries.

Business intelligence tools have been available for a number of years, but using them in the pest control industry is a leading-edge move. Senior management at Marietta, Ga.-based Northwest Exterminating is making more extensive use of data mining tools and dashboards to track sales in the Southeast, says Director of Information Systems Matthew Metcalfe.

"The [BI] tools we've deployed are much further ahead, and the use of these tools is much more extensive in our company than what we've been able to gauge of our competitors, many of which have no IT staff at all," says Metcalfe, who manages a five-person IT group.

This year, the company expects to invest about $250,000 in dashboard systems from Dundas Data Visualization Inc. that are more advanced than the "basic" dashboards that executives had been using, says Metcalfe.

Decision-makers at Northwest Exterminating plan to use the dashboards to analyze and compare the popularity of various types of pest control services in different geographic areas to help the company target its sales and marketing more effectively.

Metcalfe says it's been pretty easy to justify the investments. When he first joined the company three years ago, regional sales figures were manually entered into Excel spreadsheets, "and the numbers weren't right," says Metcalfe.

Since then, IT spending has continued to grow, and senior executives are now using dashboards to track territorial sales more closely and more accurately, he says.

Thin-client computing is hot in the public sector, where government agencies are trying desperately to lower IT costs. The city of Roanoke, Va., is moving to a thin-client architecture in order to potentially double or even triple the life span of its desktop devices, says Director of Technology Roy Mentkow. The project also means shifting to a platform that requires less security and is easy to manage with fewer technicians.

The city's IT budget is down about 2.5% for 2010, while tax revenue has remained stable, says Mentkow. Infrastructure-related upgrades such as the thin-client initiative are typically planned a few years ahead of time, he says.

Mentkow says Roanoke expects to have deployed approximately 150 Dell OptiPlex thin desktops running Citrix to replace its oldest workstations by the end of 2010. Each year, the city sets aside $150,000 to refresh a percentage of its 1,200 desktops, according to Mentkow.

At some point, Roanoke will transition some of the PCs "that still have legs under them" and repurpose them as virtualized desktops, says Mentkow. The current focus is on deploying the thin-client machines, he notes, and he's not sure when the city will begin implementing virtual desktops.

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