A competitive advantage Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

As today’s technology continues to get better and faster, it has become more important that companies make sure their IT strategies evolve efficiently at a speed that keeps up with or even surpasses the competition.

“Management can use IT as a competitive advantage in many ways,” says Eric Stoll, director of technology for Arke Systems in Atlanta. “More and more, companies are looking to IT to make their business better at execution, which requires more efficiency and better communication.”

Smart Business learned more from Stoll about how a company can ensure its IT makes a positive impact on business processes, operations and infrastructure in a competitive atmosphere.

What role should IT play in a company’s overall strategy?

By now, we all understand the magnitude of an effective IT solution and what is possible for companies who use it well. A robust IT solution provides a company with the ability to be more nimble and able to adapt to a changing market, while more efficiently executing initiatives and improving communication, both internal and external. For example, CRM (customer relations management) systems make it possible for sales to manage a high-volume pipeline, for marketing to execute high-performance campaigns, for customer support to reach the right person for any service issues that arise and for management to access reports of all this activity.

In addition to improving specific methods and tools, companies often use IT solutions in their approach to enterprise architecture as a way to leverage advantage in their marketplace. For example, companies that adopt a service-oriented architecture benefit from the agility and faster implementation of new solutions that a well-designed IT infrastructure can provide.

For a company to truly differentiate itself in the marketplace and gain an advantage through IT solutions, it’s imperative that there’s alignment and buy-in from the executive team, who needs to ask certain questions about the business itself: What does our competition do better than we do? How could we improve to be better than they are? How is the company evolving for future growth? By tying the IT initiatives back to strategic goals, companies can begin to understand how IT will make an impact on their business methods.

How can well-designed solutions work as an advantage?

A well-designed solution works to your advantage when you have a clear understanding of the solution’s purpose, its planned lifetime and how it needs to evolve. Lack of understanding of any of these will result in delays in decision-making and lost opportunity. The worst position to be in is one where you’re fishing for a solution to make an existing system better. You’ll end up spending a lot of time and resources trying to solve a problem that may not even have an answer. Good upfront design will yield savings throughout the entire solution’s lifetime.

Good design stems from understanding the purpose for each system in terms of business goals, whether that goal is to improve communication, provide better customer service or make operations more efficient. Developing performance metrics for an IT solution is dependent on what problem the company wants to solve, what business goal needs to be met or what capability needs to be created. Some of the simpler metrics might be related to software features and functionality, but remember, a solution is more than just software — it’s the whole delivery and support mechanism, too. How quickly are support requests handled? Can the software adapt to changing business needs in a timely fashion? What are the training requirements for new employees? Companies should think in a holistic way about how the solution needs to support the business as a whole.

Should IT solutions be proactive or reactive?

Solutions should always be proactive, meaning that management has a clear vision of the company’s plan, calculates risk and is forward-thinking. Each initiative must have a defined purpose, and there should be a method for measuring its success. This is where proactive management comes in to ensure that IT solutions are responsive in two ways: 1) results are delivered quickly to the users and 2) the solution can be quickly modified to meet changing business needs.

How can a company tell if its solutions are doing the job they were designed to do?

Lay out success metrics at the beginning of the project and measure the solution against them on a regular basis. The solution needs to have a mission statement or purpose for existing in the first place. Each solution needs a sponsor that will ensure it has a clear business purpose.

Create a scorecard for each solution based on predefined success metrics. The scorecard needs to reflect a passing score if the solution is working as designed, and a failing score otherwise. Reviewing these scorecards on a regular basis and being honest about the scores is the only way to identify gaps and find opportunities to improve.

ERIC STOLL is director of technology for Arke Systems. Reach him at (404) 812-3123 x130 or eric@arkesystems.com.