Finer Tuning

Any event featuring a highly decorated Gartner veteran is guaranteed a strong audience turnout. Gartner analysts have long been revered as some of the most credible observers of the IT industry. When the speaker is Peter Sondergaard, and he leaves the audience with the words, “May the computing force be with you,” the spectators are sure to have been both thoroughly entertained and given food for thought.

Sondergaard, senior vice president for research at Gartner, was the right person to give the opening presentation at the Fourteenth International Handelsblatt Annual Conference, held under the heading “Strategic IT Management.” For many of the CIOs and IT experts in Berlin’s Interconti hotel, it was also a welcome opportunity to see how their strategies shape up against the current trends. Gartner’s market researchers regularly survey general business priorities that CIOs must act on to bring their work in line with a modern business model.

In recent years, CIOs have largely been called upon to help improve business processes, keep operating costs in check, and help provide new services for customers. On top of this, executives are increasingly realizing that the systematic use of IT is vital to successful management. This reassessment of IT’s significance has been confirmed by Gartner’s surveys of top executives, says Sondergaard.

For CIOs, it has paid off to market IT to management as a reliable, cost-efficient partner. IT has gained in reputation as a punctual provider of services that takes on business responsibility and works with core business to drive important projects and processes. It has also found new freedoms – in particular, the opportunity to bring state-of-the-art technology to companies. With the latest IT in place, companies gain the flexibility needed to play a part in global competition.

Mounting expectations and profound shifts

Experts have also been quick to spot IT’s deviation from its former course: “It appears that innovation is gradually taking the place of cost-reduction programs in IT,” said Professor Walter Brenner, chairman of the Handelsblatt conference and director of the Institute of Information Management at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, in his opening address. According to joint analyses by Gartner and Forbes, company strategists now rate fostering innovation as extremely important. Sondergaard presented survey results with similar findings, which state that IT “greatly enhances” companies’ possibilities for being innovative.

As the IT world turns to roads untraveled, CIOs face mounting expectations. Sondergaard sees as a new key role for IT the acceleration of integrating technical innovations in business solutions. Web 2.0 and the consumers’ active involvement is a start, but an even more profound shift will be reflected in management’s new expectations of constant innovation in system architecture.

Managers’ shifting priorities are indicated by their answers to the question of which tasks they see their CIOs handling in five years’ time: CIOs should invest more time in new business models, analyze business data, and push employee productivity – without neglecting traditional functions such as system support.

IT propels change

It is possible that some IT departments will struggle to keep up with the development. However, this does not always mean that great changes will be necessary. In many cases, consistently executing the IT strategy to drive business transformation will in itself increase flexibility in core business and thus increase competitiveness.

With this aim, oil company Shell is striving to rationalize day-to-day business activities to free up resources for investments in innovation and growth. Streamlined processes enabled and driven by IT will make it possible. The IT department is set to consolidate the oil group’s SAP environment, develop and operate reference models for specific divisions, and implement a unified HR system with standardized processes for all employees worldwide.

However, before IT specialists set out on such a venture, empha-sizes Shell manager Ludolf Luehmann, they have to earn the trust that has been placed in them – with cost-awareness, alignment to the corporate strategy, and evidence they can fulfill expectations.