During the past few years, technology organizations got really good at consolidating systems and introducing standards across the enterprise - perhaps too good. "It should be a benefit," says CISR's Ross. "But the risk is that some people assume that if some standards are good, more are better and most are best. You develop a culture or mind-set that can't let go of cost-cutting constraints."
To enable top-line growth, IT departments have to loosen up. "You have to be more flexible to seek out new revenue," says Tom Bugnitz, senior consultant with the Cutter Consortium.
Developing the Web-based corporate sales centre application at YRC required IT to loosen up and retool its thought processes about Web development. It meant abandoning its traditional ASP, back-end server approach to developing presentation and content delivery in one program for a more dynamic Ajax-like approach to deliver XML data separately from the static presentation page directly to a user's Web browser. The potential benefit was clear: It would minimize CPU, bandwidth and end- user response time. But at the time, the acronym Ajax didn't even exist and the approach was neither widely employed nor well understood.
It was critical to manage the risks associated with the changes the new system would require of both IT and the system's users. To get buy-in from the IT staff, project leaders explained the advantages of the new Web development approach and how it would work. To make sure the affected customer service constituency was on board, YRC used a team-based approach to gather requirements and develop the application, involving representatives from the eight business groups affected. The team employed an appreciative inquiry tool that allowed them to envision the new call centre improvements and build consensus around the proposed changes in business processes.
"Having processes and standards shouldn't discourage creativity, as long as there is a part of your process for problem solving," says YRC CIO Rapken. "You have to continue to encourage folks to think creatively, position it as a problem to solve, and then get out of their way." (For a view on how a misguided obsession with process improvement could well be killing innovation, read "Disrupt and Prosper, Conform and Languish", page 60.)
The new mix of technologies and Web development methodology is now being used to enable top-line growth for other YRC projects that require a rich and high-speed end-user experience. "Enabling revenue generation will be a continued focus," says Rapken. "That's good for the business. And it's good for IT."
At Ball State, IT's role has transformed rapidly from enforcing standards and technology choices to exploring and testing the newest technology and its revenue-generating potential. But Smitherman is careful to make sure IT does not abandon its core customers as it pursues emerging technologies.
"If you're going to take risks like this, you need to mediate the imposition on the rest of your customers," says Smitherman. "And spread the benefit to as many constituencies as possible."
For example, Smitherman positioned the Digital Middletown Project and the Office of Wireless Research and Mapping that grew out of it as an opportunity for Ball State's students to get work experience to make them more marketable and for faculty to do applied research in their areas of study. Internal constituents such as the geography department and the Teacher's College got involved and benefited.
With the project, IT proved its flexibility and out-of-the-box thinking - and its ability to make money. "Every time you have a success, that gives you more credibility," says Smitherman. "It gives us the freedom to do other things that will not only continue to cut the institution's costs but also have the possibility to generate revenue."
Smitherman and his team are currently looking at the success of such ventures as rich media site JibJab and social networking site FaceBook and exploring the ways in which Ball State might profit from such IT applications. Perhaps, there's even a business spin-off in there somewhere.
"The real opportunities for generating revenue all come from the intelligent use of technology," says Smitherman. "And what better place is there to do that than in IT?"
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