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How managers should prioritise tech projects

A look at the IT initiatives that support the Colorado ski resort at Aspen

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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 prioritise 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 organisations 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 prioritising 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 prioritisation, and savvier in assessing ROI - all so it can work with, not against, the needs of business.

Explaining pros and cons to business

The consumerisation of IT, in particular, is driving radical changes not only in what IT needs to prioritise, 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.

Since resources aren't infinite, he says, IT management needs to recast its role to become more of a broker of IT services, working in concert with the business side to understand key priorities and function as an enabler, not a bottleneck to new technology deployment.

For example, rather than shooting down a request for a mobile application over security concerns - or green-lighting another simply because someone thinks it's cool - Cearley says it is IT's responsibility to help the business understand core risks and highlight the technologies available to help mitigate those risks.

"Being proactive means helping the business understand how new technologies like mobile can impact the business," he explains. "Governance cannot be the mechanism to say no. Governance needs to be the mechanism to help direct and support the requirements of the business."

It's a directive Aspen Skiing Co.'s Major is taking to heart. With an onslaught of personal devices showing up at work and near universal demand among employees for mobile apps that can support guest services like ticketing and ski rentals, Major put together an executive steering committee to which he introduces new technologies and presents case study examples, encouraging feedback and collaboration to get the creative juices flowing.

Once ideas start to percolate, Major enlists help from a different management focus group, this one charged with finding practical business applications for those big ideas using traditional financial tools to determine ROI.

"There are no such thing as fake dollars in a company - everything costs money, and especially in this financial climate, things need to be scrutinized," Major says. "You have to apply whatever tools are in your financial quiver" to justify or deny new proposals.

So rather than signing off on a virtual desktop client that would have allowed Aspen's enterprise apps to run on a mobile platform - but needed to be developed from scratch - the management focus group instead suggested a handful of specific ticketing, rental, retail and human resources applications that could run on employee-owned devices without the high costs and labor associated with mobile development.

Taking stock of the project portfolio

In addition to involving business directly in the prioritisation process, Major is kicking off a new project portfolio management strategy to rein in what he says is an unsustainable number of projects in the IT pipeline.

Working with a strategic group of six representatives evenly split between IT and finance, the team is conducting interviews with senior staff members from all areas of the business to identify all current and requested IT projects - anything as complex as a new business intelligence system to something as simple as an order for a new mouse.

The projects are then categorised to find opportunities for reuse and optimised licensing arrangements. "The idea is to see at a high level what we're doing, find out where we want to be in 18 months, and then categorise projects using man hours, costs, risks and priorities," Major says. "If we can distill out of the list the top five or 10 projects, we can present those to executive leadership and get decisions about funding."

Developing apps in a new way

At Catalina Marketing, new mobile apps and business intelligence projects are so central to the corporate charter that business functions are eager to work in step with IT to lobby top management for support.

As a result, Catalina's 250-person IT department has essentially been given a blank check to bring in the resources that it needs to get the job done, "and there is no argument moving other projects down the hierarchy list," explains Eric Williams, former CIO at the company, which provides promotions and marketing services to clients in the retail and health care industries.

"Sales teams in the different business units have made it clear to the CEO this is where we need to be," says Williams, who retired last December.

The high level of involvement from business stakeholders has also spurred IT to rethink its development process, moving from a very structured, waterfall method to a more ad hoc approach where IT teams up with marketing or business folks to quickly build out a mobile app or launch a business analytics programme - sometimes in a matter of days rather than weeks or even months.

"Business people and the marketing team are so wanting this technology, they are willing to work with developers, literally sitting at the desk with them throughout the day answering questions," Williams says. "It's much more cohesive integration of product development than I've seen in the past."

Williams admits there has been a ramp up to the new, more agile approach and that the team is doing a bit of on-the-fly learning as it takes on mobile app development. Yet even with these adjustments, Williams says programmers been able to field a steady stream of mobile and business intelligence projects in a timely fashion.

Soliciting a wide range of input

Northern Kentucky University has also adjusted its prioritisation process, moving to a more open system where input is solicited from advisory committees made up of faculty, students and staff members, according to Timothy Ferguson, associate provost for Information Technology and the university's CIO.

"Previously, we took a more traditional IT perspective and worked through management to get priorities approved and get funding as needed," he explains. "Now, with the impact of things like social media and mobile so widespread, we're listening more to end user demands and are less worried about back-office computing as we go through the prioritisation process."

When it comes time to actually develop new mobile and social media projects, Williams has access to a unique resource: students in the university's information technology programme who were bred on these new technologies. "They've grown up with this technology, they are connected, and this is the way they've always worked," explains Ferguson.

Currently, Ferguson has brought on five or six student developers who work 25 hours a week on new projects. So far, it's been a win-win situation: Students are teaching their IT counterparts a lot about emerging technologies, while traditional staffers are helping the students understand what it takes to write back-end applications as well as schooling them in enterprise issues like authentication and security.

Tapping mobile development power tools

International transportation company has turned to technology to help IT power through its prodigious project pipeline, especially in the area of mobile development.

Demand from business users for mobile apps was outstripping the IT department's ability to keep pace, according to Jon Yuan, solutions architect in CSX's enterprise architecture team.

What's more, given that CSX has a liberal bring-your-own-technology policy, IT was struggling to stay on top of the wide range of platforms it needed to support, principally Apple iOS and several flavors of Android, and with the pace of updates.

"What we're finding is that mobile is a different animal. There are considerations that we didn't have to take into account with past technologies," Yuan says - not to mention business users who expect fast turnaround. "People are used to getting things faster with features in near real time," he says. "They don't want to spend six months waiting for new functionality."

To help expedite development, CSX turned to a Mobile Enterprise Application Platform (MEAP), specifically an offering from Verivo (formerly Pyxis Mobile).

MEAP tools allow developers to design an app once and deploy it anywhere on a variety of mobile platforms without rewriting and in short order, Yuan explains.

Instead of having to write and recode apps to support each individual Android device and for every operating system upgrade, Yuan's team now develops apps using the MEAP's drag-and-drop development environment. Subsequently, they can deploy the app to run on any device without modification.

Keeping rogue IT at bay

Back at Aspen Skiing Co., being responsive to user demand for new technologies, in a fiscally responsible way, defines this new era of IT, says IT director Major.

Without formal methodologies for prioritisation and proactive governance, IT departments run the risk of being marginalized - a risk Major is not willing to take.

"There is not enough space today to miss important technology opportunities. You will be overrun by rogue IT," he says. "Departments will take things into their own hands."

The result, he says, is something most IT managers don't like to contemplate. "Instead of strategic technology decisions, you will end up with one-off projects that go well for six to nine months, and then IT is overrun with calls from people looking for support."


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