IT gets ready for the recovery

Don't just sit there -- now's the time to position your IT department to own the economic upturn when it comes around.

Anne Agee is living a dual life at work these days. On the one hand, she's preparing for a cut to her IT budget that could be as high as 9% for the next fiscal year. On the other, she's bracing for a boom in business.

Agee, vice provost for information technology and CIO at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is in a position that many IT managers find themselves these days -- coping with the ongoing effects of a grinding recession while simultaneously being asked to get ready for a recovery.

In the case of UMass Boston, lawmakers are still deciding how much the state will cut its contribution to higher education, but the number could be devastating, a scenario for which Agee must prepare. At the same time Agee has to ready her department for an influx in students, and related faculty hiring, as families shift from more expensive schools to in-state colleges.

Agee is using the downturn to eliminate sacred cows, like a long-standing remote-access modem pool that costs several thousand dollars a month in connection fees. That will be replaced by an existing virtual private network (VPN), which will cost less and be more secure. She's also pushing to eliminate fax machines, with the goal of putting in fax servers or related technology. And she's exploring whether she can replace individual desktop printers with centralized shared multifunction printers.

She's already renegotiating vendor contracts, to reduce the risk of having to cut staff if she does have to whack her budget. Another hedge would be to close labs on weekends and slow certain technology purchases.

Agee is not the only IT manager having to plan for growth during a downturn. We talked with several, and they offered these nuggets of wisdom:

Take care of your business partners

The downturn has given some IT managers a chance to slow down and take a look at what they've been racing around doing. That's the plan for Frank Lowery, IS director at Ebara International Corp. in Sparks, Nev., which makes liquid natural gas equipment.

While Ebara has had some layoffs, thanks to productivity gains achieved after installing a new ERP system, Lowery himself has neither had to lay anyone off nor cut his budget. Still, business has slowed down, and he has used this time to examine how well projects were implemented, and to do future planning.

That's led to refocusing resources from customer projects to ones that will help Ebara's suppliers. So instead of building a massive portal to share data with customers and suppliers, as Ebara had originally planned, it built a supplier portal only, with the customer piece on hold until later.

That might sound counterintuitive, but the firm builds its equipment to order, so putting off what suppliers needed was creating the potential for efficiency problems. "If we can make it easier for suppliers to do business with us, in the end it saves us money," says Lowery.

By re-examining existing IT resources, Lowery also found a simpler way to build Ebara's supplier portal.

His original plan was to buy new development tools and build a portal from scratch. But his department realized that it could use Oracle Application Express, bundled with its Oracle database. That reduced licensing costs and also saved time -- it took less than three months to build the supplier portal, versus the six months the team had originally allotted.

Don't just reduce when you can reengineer

The downturn meant cutting more than 5% of IT staff for Mark Settle, CIO at BMC Software. Yet it has managed to cut exactly none of its IT projects. It finished deploying a major rollout of Oracle HR and Finance in October, and in April started using for sales activities like contact management and lead management.

BMC kept projects going in part by taking a hard look at employees' responsibilities. Settle realized that cost-cutting over the years meant his senior developers and architects had gradually taken on operations and service tasks. Automating those tasks has now freed his senior-level staff to do senior-level work.

For example, about half of BMC's IT employees are developers, who need new run-time environments for their code. These usually are built to custom specifications and take up to six weeks to create.

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