Prioritizing tech projects: How managers make a short list of long demands

Snowed under with requests for mobile, social and analytics apps, IT finds itself juggling priorities to give the business what it wants -- now.

delegating tech employees

As top technology dog at Aspen Skiing Co. for the last 16 years, Paul Major has honed the art of keeping multiple balls in the air.

With responsibility for all IT initiatives that support the Colorado resort's four mountains and extensive portfolio of hotels, retail and rental shops, Major has gotten pretty good at helping his staff of 20 field and prioritize requests to keep the company's 3,400 employees happy from a tech standpoint.

Lately, however, the juggling act has gotten far more intense, says Major, managing director of IT.

Thanks to the mania surrounding mobile and social technologies, Major's group is constantly being peppered with requests for new projects. A business-side executive reads about a cool mobile app in an in-flight magazine or Joe in operations overhears casual conversation about technology while on the slopes, and Major's email box starts to fill up.

"The game changer is the sheer amount of demand on IT for new technologies that don't follow the normal trajectory of IT," says Major. "You can't just have a thousand random requests coming in because so much is new and untested. More than ever, there has to be a voice of sanity about what these technologies are going to do and what is the long-term strategy."

Major is up against what a lot of IT shops are facing. Surging demand in organizations for new mobile, social and advanced analytics technologies is adding to IT's already full plate of traditional enterprise system work. The yin-yang of the economic climate doesn't help -- tech budgets are up somewhat and companies seem more amendable to adding staff, but workers skilled in the new technologies scarce.

In the heyday of IT hegemony, managers like Major would have had an easier time keeping priorities straight and under control. Then, line-of-business managers looking for new technology made a request and then got in line to get what they needed from IT. These days, ordinary end users can tap the power of the cloud to forge ahead if they perceive IT as lagging.

"The formal models and mechanisms of prioritizing things no longer work," says David Cearley, vice president and fellow at Gartner. "It can't be done in isolation from the business, but rather needs to happen in tight partnership with the business. If IT just says no or doesn't put the right things high on their priority list, business will just go around them."

Against that backdrop, IT is feeling the pressure to get more agile in its delivery methods, more flexible in project prioritization, and savvier in assessing ROI -- all so it can work with, not against, the needs of business.

Explaining pros and cons to business

The consumerization of IT, in particular, is driving radical changes not only in what IT needs to prioritize, but in how it interacts with other business units to deliver those projects.

Not only does IT need to figure out how to manage, acquire, support and build mobile apps, it needs to rethink the entire end-user computing experience around mobile, according to Cearley.

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