Using technology to the fullest Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

It used to be that IT people sat hidden in the most remote hollows of your offices. Places where neither light nor co-workers dared venture. Now IT’s in the spotlight and taking center stage in the quest to realize true competitive advantage. That’s according to a national survey of corporate executives released this month. The study was conducted by Smart Business Network, Ohio State University, InfoCision and Mirifex — the nation’s fastest-growing privately-held business and technology consulting firm.

Smart Business asked Nick Scafaria, senior vice president of client services at Mirifex, to explain some of the trending that the study revealed.

A majority of corporate executives now say competitive advantage is more important than cost when it comes to IT. What does that mean?

It used to be that businesses viewed information technology as simply a support function — something they had to do to keep their business running. Now it’s becoming clear that IT is a chief driver of new competitive advantages in business. Most executives are beginning to see that.

When you think about that, it makes sense. Businesses have spent decades perfecting their quality, processes and service. Using traditional lean methodologies, they’ve milked about as much cost and waste out of their businesses as possible. Now what? New technologies present boundless opportunities to spawn even greater perfection in existing operations, and they provide new means to create added value. By shortening time to market, for example. Or streamlining customer service.

In the nationwide study we conducted, more than 90 percent of business leaders agreed that technology’s role in their business’s success will continue to grow. And most felt comfortable with an increasing spend in technology relative to their business growth.

What they appear to lack are effective IT strategies that drive innovation. In other words, they understand ‘what,’ but they’re just not sure ‘how.’

Is there a right way or a wrong way to develop and execute your IT strategy in business today?

Some might argue that it’s a matter of individual preference. I disagree.

When we asked more than 100 C-level executives to rate their IT efforts, two out of three said they were outpacing the competition. And by the same margin, executives said they were satisfied with their overall performance in IT. Based on these responses, you might assume that senior-level executives are already defining IT as a ‘strategic function.’ But, by and large, their actions don’t back this up. About half say that IT leadership never, seldom, or only sometimes contributes to strategic planning and business innovation. And two out of three say their lead IT person is a ‘technologist’ rather than a ‘business manager.’

If a business is to exact new and greater advances in business by leveraging technology, it must involve IT at the highest levels. And demand that its IT department develop strategies that either directly advance — or even drive — overall business strategies. All the time. It’s that important.

How can a company best elevate the role of IT?

Let’s say you have a small IT Department. They’re smart about technology, but not thinking about IT as being aligned with — or driving — your business growth strategies. It’s difficult to raise expectations from your current people. And replacing them isn’t an option, either.

In this instance, your best move would be to bring in outside counsel — people whose expertise is driving business through IT — to guide your IT Department as well as your business. It’s outsourcing. But outsourcing taken to the level of strategic IT functions rather than day-to-day operations. With the advancement of IT’s role in business today, progressive firms are doing this.

In our study, about a third of the companies said they now outsource. Yet of those, the majority are outsourcing high-level tasks.

So, typically, when a company makes the decision to outsource, it means they get it — they understand the advancing role of IT. These are the companies that are truly realizing the benefits of IT as a driver of competitive advantage.

NICK SCAFARIA is senior vice president of client services for Mirifex, the nation’s fastest-growing privately held business and technology consulting firm. Reach him at (440) 891-1210, ext. 307, or nscafaria@mirifex.com.