Personalize Your Job

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Career opportunities in corporate IT are under siege. What with threats from offshore outsourcers, infrastructure service providers, marketing departments. ... Marketing? You bet. The same men and women who eschew pocket protectors and think client/server is where they itemize a tip to a waiter on an expense account after a customer lunch. Yep, they're after your job, especially if you've built your career on deploying CRM or personalization applications.

It's not that marketing folks are vicious, career-obsessed, money-hungry evildoers (well, OK, some of them are); it's just that an IT team's contribution to the value of how a company reaches customers and then maintains those relationships is diminishing. Technology isn't the problem, so you're not the solution.

Last month, I was chatting with Del Rose, director of global e-commerce at InterContinental Hotels Group, at the company's U.S. headquarters in Atlanta. He was telling me about the personalization technology underpinning Priority Club, the online service for frequent guests of IHG's 3,500 hotels worldwide. He explained that the overall system is complex. It uses a personalization engine from Art Technology Group (ATG) in Cambridge, Mass., and links it to 11 back-end systems to serve customers in six languages.

So, when IHG recently rolled out a service that permits a business traveler's assistant to access a Priority Club member's account to change travel plans, a whole new role had to be created, one with unique authentication rights and privileges. In effect, IHG had to create a personalized profile for a user who never traveled. What's more, the new account had to be flexible enough to suit the preferences of individual customers for how they want their assistants to access and use their private accounts, not for how IHG defines those rights.

Sounds like a daunting, time-consuming IT project, but that didn't turn out to be the case.

"What's most costly and time-consuming is thinking through the problem," Rose observes.

IHG's marketers figured out everything they wanted to do and then went to IT with the idea. They understood the complexity of the systems, but that didn't slow them down for a minute.

"The good news," says Rose, "is that technology is rarely the limiting factor."

Good news for whom? Not you. Not if you're hung up on the details of establishing solid connections between an Oracle database, a Siebel system and ATG's personalization engine. That's been done hundreds, even thousands of times.

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Certainly, it will need to be done again and again. But how important is that to your company? Scott Todaro, director of commerce and retail product marketing at ATG, argues that "IT will always be involved in a personalization project because of the back-end systems and will have some control mapping it out, but [the project] will be led by marketing or customer service."

You will no longer tell others what can be done; you will be told what will be done.

"Technology is not the hard part," says Rose. "The hard part is thinking through the requirements process."

In other words, if you're not involved in the requirements process, you may be relegated to becoming a simple order-taker. And that's not much of a career.

Luckily, that's not inevitable. Getting involved in requirements planning is simply a matter of volunteering. Yes, it means more meetings, but it's also a way to see how marketing thinks and to help shape your company's thought process.

Or you can help refine the requirements process. For example, IHG conducts extensive usability studies before implementing significant changes to customer-facing services on Priority Club. The company tests proposed updates to personalization features. IHG's IT team gets involved to ensure that customers have the best experience possible.

That's because this is where IT's hands-on technology skills can shine. You know what a system is capable of and how it can be leveraged to be more intuitive for users so the company can achieve its goals.

Let's face it, when the marketing department can call Salesforce.com and order instant CRM for hundreds, even thousands of users, the days of IT being the center of the automation universe are numbered. But the need for revenue-generating application requirements never ends. For that, you can be as effective as anyone in a suit. And maybe make one or two marketers nervous about their jobs.

Mark Hall is a Computerworld editor at large. Contact him at mark_hall@computerworld.com.

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