In recent columns, I've discussed the need for business to align with IT. Yes, you've got that right — my point is that successful businesses need to ask how they can best leverage IT as a strategic asset.
But what if they don't? In companies that don't yet see IT as a strategic asset, how does an IT executive get across the idea that IT in general — and networks in particular — can add strategic value?
For starters, it helps to understand what "strategic value" really means. This is easier than it looks (sometimes we pundits tend to overcomplicate things).
At the end of the day, adding value to a business boils down to one of four — or possibly five — things:
- Fewer dollars. Using IT wisely lets you cut costs lower than your competitors, thereby increasing margins. Example: US airline JetBlue's use of the Web as a way to avoid expensive travel agents and call centres.
- More dollars. IT lets you sell more of your existing products and services to your existing customer base. Example: WalMart's cutting-edge use of supply-chain technologies to keep stores fully stocked.
- New dollars. IT lets you offer products and services you couldn't previously, or to offer them to customers you previously couldn't reach. Example: Amazon.com's use of the Web to add product categories beyond books and media.
- Forced dollars. In highly regulated industries, IT can help you comply with the regulations required to do business. Example: emerging products and services that enable companies to perform real-time online document indexing for e-discovery.
Non-profits obviously don't share the goal of earning profits, but the analogy still holds — they want to do the same things less expensively, do more of what they already do, do new and better things, and comply with regulatory constraints while doing so.
Examine these examples. What do they all have in common? The network is front and centre. That's partly because the magazine you're reading isn't called, say, Database World. But even so, it's worth noting that networking is very often key.
The other thing that leaps out is that the definition of network is not necessarily aligned with IT's typical definition. We're not talking about the corporate WAN, in the sense of a proprietary network linking an organization's physical facilities. Instead, the network links the company with outsiders (customers or suppliers), using various Web technologies. And as we're beginning to see, over time the network is less about linking places than linking people and systems.
So there you have it: To position networking as a strategic asset, you need to do three things. First, understand in your particular organization whether the primary priority is less expensive, more, new or forced dollars — and in what order those priorities go. Second, figure out how the network plays into those priorities. And finally, rethink your definition of "the network" to include service-oriented architectures and externalization.
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