New Technology: Covering All the Bases

Face time. Trust-building. Risk-taking. Team-building. These are the activities IT leaders need to engage in if they want new technology projects to succeed. According to IT leaders, it's not just a matter of evaluating the technology and technology providers - although that, too, comes strongly into play. It's just as important to rally end users around the project, gauge which risks are worth taking and never stop communicating with everyone involved.

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Take Phil Go, for example. It's a good thing Go made the rounds with the construction managers, architects, engineers and consultants at Barton Malow Co. before, during and after implementing the company's Internet-based project management system. By making sure everyone was on board from the start, the CIO at the $1 billion construction firm in Southfield, Mich., didn't have to quell a revolt when the system's speed initially proved disappointing. In fact, he could show users that the technology was something they didn't want to live without.

Bounty of Benefits

With the new system, a workflow-based application hosted by an application service provider (ASP), subcontractors around the country can access their projects over the Web, make decisions and move projects forward. For example, a construction manager in Baltimore can get clarification on drawings from an architect in San Francisco in a matter of days, compared with up to two weeks on the old system.

Two years ago, when Go's group was designing the system, ASPs were new and considered somewhat risky, especially in the technologically stodgy construction industry. Even then, however, Go's group understood the power of using the Internet as a collaboration tool. "We knew it would provide us with first-mover advantage," he says.

But Go had to put in some effort before the rest of the company shared his vision. Communication saved the project. "The performance of the system is not what people are used to," he acknowledges. "Sometimes you get [good response time], and sometimes you don't, and that's the way it is."

But it wasn't terribly difficult to soothe users' frayed nerves. After all, Go had spent a lot of time meeting with the leaders of each operating group and with workers at individual job sites, educating them and gaining their buy-in. He had earlier conducted exhaustive evaluations of the system with individual groups and educated them on the merits and constraints of Internet-based systems.

So after the rollout, when performance proved less than ideal, he hit the streets again. "We conducted a survey that asked, 'At the end of the day, are you better off with or without the system?' " Go says. "All but one user said they would not know what to do without it. They realized that despite the shortcomings, it can still help in terms of making decisions faster and ensuring the accountability of how decisions are made."

In fact, just over a year into its implementation, the system has reduced the time it takes to make decisions by one-third to one-half. "Time equals money in construction," Go says, adding that the shortened cycle times are expected to affect the company's competitive positioning, and, ultimately, its revenue.

Even in these tough economic times, when some companies have delayed buying computers, evaluating technology is still an everyday stress for many CIOs, particularly those under increased pressure to do more with less through technology.

"[Evaluating new technology is] not a one-off thing that occurs occasionally. Companies have to organize the resources they have at hand to do this on a continuing basis," says Jay Williams, chief technology officer at The Concours Group in Kingwood, Texas. He recommends setting up a process to keep pace with new technology, understand its impact on existing architecture, monitor expected benefits and develop tools to measure whether it's actually achieving goals.

Building Trust

But what if your company simply doesn't want to assume the risks inherent to being on the cutting edge? Then, says Douglas T. Jones, CIO and vice president of enterprise information systems at Cedars-Sinai Health System in Los Angeles, the largest nonprofit hospital in the western U.S., the most important task before embarking on a new-technology project is gaining the trust of your company's leadership.

In 1998, Jones met with "a great deal of resistance" from doctors when when he presented them with the idea of implementing a Web-based system that would enable 4,000 clinicians, nurses, allied health officials and physicians to access clinical data via computers. But from Jones' perspective, "we understood the technology well enough to understand the risk. At the time, the Web browser was still fairly new, but we were confident that it would be around for quite a while."

Part of the trust-building job was establishing a strong reputation for understanding technology and for being judicious about adopting it. "You have a checkbook of risk," Jones says. "If you spend it all at once, you're done for a while." So Jones and his group chose some very small, simple projects they could pull off quickly to solve some immediate problems for people.

Putting the system together piece by piece helped build trust in another way. Though the system ultimately cost $3 million, price wasn't a factor because "we never asked for a huge investment at once," Jones says. "We got something out there quickly that people could use and added more gradually." The first piece was a simple browser interface that could search one existing data store. Over time, the group added more data sources, for a total of 50, saving the most challenging ones for last.

Last, Jones held focus group sessions with the opinion leaders among the physicians to make sure the application supported their practices. "If they wanted a change, we made it quickly and made sure they were aware of the changes," Jones says. When choosing the focus group participants, "we didn't want to get the most technologically knowledgeable people," Jones says. "It's much more convincing if you can get people who aren't real technology adopters."

In the end, Jones says, "people were pretty delighted." Although it's difficult to quantify the hard-dollar payback, the system gets more than 25,000 hits a day, and it has allowed physicians to respond to clinical issues much more quickly than they once did. "If a physician has a patient who needs to be in intensive care, he can monitor progress by accessing data at home or in the office," Jones says. "I've had physicians tell me they've accessed the system from Internet cafes in Europe."

In addition to building trust, Jones points out another leadership skill that's often neglected by CIOs: being technologically savvy. "Board members will come up with questions that are technically difficult, but you have to answer them in layman's terms, so you have to understand it at a deep level," Jones says. "I make a real effort to keep up, through reading, talking to people and going to events."

Walking the Talk

Being tech-savvy is especially important when evaluating new technology in today's climate, where software vendors come and go and you can get stuck holding a technology bag that you have no idea how to use. In times like this, says Dave Moellenhoff, CTO at Inc., a privately held ASP in San Francisco, you have to rely on your own technology know-how.

A year ago, Moellenhoff's company needed to improve the search capability on the customer relationship management system it offers to customers on an ASP basis. "There was definitely a perception that we needed to go with a known name because of concern for supportability and the reliability assumption that comes with a name like AltaVista or Autonomy," he says.

Moellenhoff, however, was focused on the technology, not the vendor name, and was convinced that a small firm, San Francisco-based Ripfire Inc., had the right technology. "I requested API documentation to get a better understanding of the system internally and had our developers give their own assessment of that," he says. In Moellenhoff's opinion, good technology survives, even if the vendor doesn't. "If it's really a better search technology, another vendor will recognize it, buy the technology cheap and incorporate it into their own product."

Armed with his beliefs, Moellenhoff countered the known-vendor argument by sharing his vision and explaining how putting code into escrow would help keep the search engine running, even if Ripfire went under. "There were things we wanted but Ripfire didn't have, but I assured them the vendor could do it by a certain date. It helped allay their fears," he says.

The important thing, he says, was doing the research and taking a stand based on it. "They give you more latitude than if they think you're making something up," he says.

As it turns out, small was the way to go. While it's hard to tie the new search capabilities to revenue, people are happy with them, according to customer satisfaction surveys. "There have certainly been fewer requests to do searching better," Moellenhoff says. And when ran into scalability problems, Ripfire came on-site and quickly figured out the problem. "With a larger vendor, we'd probably have to rely on consultants to fulfill that role," Moellenhoff says.

In the end, successful IT leaders understand that the key to evaluating and implementing new technology is building and sharing your vision with the rest of the organization. "You need to be a good team builder and see things from more than one point of view, not just your own," Go says. "At the end of the day, end users make things happen, and they can make things not happen. We have to constantly make sure there's a vision that's shared among all entities."

Brandel is a freelance writer in Newton, Mass.

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