As the top IT executive at Aspen Skiing for the past 16 years, Paul Major has become skilled at keeping multiple balls in the air.
With responsibility for all technology initiatives that support the Colorado resort's four mountains and extensive lineup of hotels, retail shops and rental operations, Major has grown adept at helping his staff of 20 handle IT-related requests from the company's 3,400 employees.
Lately, however, the juggling act has grown far more intense, says Major, Aspen's managing director of IT.
Thanks to the mania surrounding mobile and social technologies, Major's group is constantly being peppered with requests to launch new projects. A business executive reads about a cool app in an in-flight magazine or Joe in operations overhears casual conversation about technology while on the slopes, and Major's email box starts to fill up.
"The game-changer is the sheer amount of demand on IT for new technologies that don't follow the normal trajectory of IT," says Major. "You can't just have a thousand random requests coming in because so much is new and untested. More than ever, there has to be a voice of sanity about what these technologies are going to do and what the long-term strategy is."
Major is up against the same challenges that a lot of IT shops are facing. Surging demand for new mobile, social and advanced analytics tools is adding to IT's already full plate of traditional enterprise system work. The still-uncertain economic climate doesn't help -- tech budgets are up a bit and companies seem more amenable to expanding their IT staffs, but people with expertise in the new technologies are scarce.
In the heyday of IT hegemony, executives like Major would have had an easier time managing priorities. Back then, line-of-business managers looking for new technologies submitted requests and then waited in line for IT to set up their systems. These days, ordinary end users can tap the power of the cloud to get what they want if they think IT is slow or unresponsive.
"The formal models and mechanisms of prioritizing things no longer work," says David Cearley, an analyst at Gartner. "It can't be done in isolation from the business, but rather needs to happen in tight partnership with the business. If IT just says no or doesn't put the right things high on their priority list, business will just go around them."
Against that backdrop, IT is feeling the pressure to get more agile in its delivery methods, more flexible in project prioritization, and savvier in assessing ROI -- all so it can work with, not against, the needs of business.
Explaining Pros and Cons
The consumerization of IT, in particular, is driving radical changes not only in what IT needs to prioritize, but in how it interacts with other business units to deliver new tools. IT needs to figure out how to manage, acquire, support and build mobile apps. It also needs to rethink the entire end-user computing experience with mobile in mind, according to Cearley.
Since resources aren't infinite, he says, IT management needs to recast its role to become more of a broker of services -- one that works in concert with the business side to understand priorities and then acts to facilitate, rather than impede, new technology deployment.
For example, instead of shooting down a request for a mobile application because of security concerns -- or green-lighting another simply because someone thinks it's cool -- Cearley says it is IT's responsibility to help the business understand core risks and highlight the technologies available to help mitigate those risks.
"Being proactive means helping the business understand how new technologies like mobile can impact the business," he explains. "Governance cannot be the mechanism to just say no. Governance needs to be the mechanism to help direct and support the requirements of the business."
That's an outlook that Major is taking to heart at Aspen Skiing. With an onslaught of personal devices showing up at work and near universal demand among employees for mobile apps that can support guest services like ticketing and ski rentals, Major put together an executive steering committee to which he introduces new technologies and presents case study examples, encouraging feedback and collaboration to get the creative juices flowing.
Once ideas start to percolate, Major enlists help from a different management focus group, this one charged with finding practical applications for those big ideas and using traditional financial tools to determine ROI.
"There's no such thing as fake dollars in a company -- everything costs money. And especially in this financial climate, things need to be scrutinized," Major says. "You have to apply whatever tools are in your financial quiver" to justify or deny new proposals.
So rather than signing off on a virtual desktop client that would have allowed Aspen's enterprise apps to run on a mobile platform -- but needed to be developed from scratch -- the management focus group instead suggested a handful of specific ticketing, rental, retail and human resources applications that could run on employee-owned devices without the high costs and labor associated with mobile development.
Taking Stock of the Portfolio
In addition to involving business directly in the prioritization process, Major is kicking off a new project portfolio management strategy to rein in what he says is an unsustainable number of projects in the IT pipeline.
Working with a strategic group of six people evenly split between IT and finance, the team is conducting interviews with senior staff members from every area of the business to identify all current and requested IT projects -- anything as complex as a call for a new business intelligence system or as simple as an order for a new mouse.
The projects are then categorized to find opportunities for reuse and optimized licensing arrangements. "The idea is to see at a high level what we're doing, find out where we want to be in 18 months, and then categorize projects using man-hours, costs, risks and priorities," Major says. "If we can distill out of the list the top five or 10 projects, we can present those to executive leadership and get decisions about funding."
Developing Apps in a New Way
At Catalina Marketing, new mobile apps and business intelligence projects are so central to the corporate charter that business units are eager to work in step with IT to lobby top management for support.
As a result, Catalina's 250-person IT department has essentially been given a blank check to bring in the resources that it needs to get the job done, "and there is no argument about moving [other projects] down the hierarchy list," explains Eric Williams, former CIO at the company, which provides promotions and marketing services to clients in the retail and healthcare industries.
"Sales teams in the different business units have made it clear to the CEO that this is where we need to be," says Williams, who retired last December.
The high level of involvement from business stakeholders has also spurred IT to rethink its development process, moving from a very structured, waterfall method to a more ad hoc approach where IT teams up with marketing or other business units to quickly build a mobile app or launch an analytics program -- sometimes in a matter of days rather than weeks or months.
"Business people and the marketing team are so wanting this technology, they are willing to work with developers, literally sitting at the desk with them throughout the day answering questions," Williams says. "It's much more cohesive integration of product development than I've seen in the past."
Williams admits there has been a ramp-up to the new, more agile approach and that the team is doing a bit of on-the-fly learning as it takes on mobile app development. Yet even with these adjustments, Williams says programmers have been able to complete a steady stream of mobile and business intelligence projects in a timely fashion.
Northern Kentucky University has also adjusted its prioritization process, moving to a more open system where input is solicited from advisory committees made up of faculty, staff and student representatives, according to Timothy Ferguson, associate provost for information technology and the university's CIO.
"Previously, we took a more traditional IT perspective and worked through management to get priorities approved and get funding as needed," he explains. "Now, with the impact of things like social media and mobile so widespread, we're listening more to end-user demands and are less worried about back-office [computing] as we go through the prioritization process."
When it comes time to actually develop new mobile and social media systems, Ferguson has access to a unique resource: students in the university's computer science program who not only have technical expertise, but also are well acquainted with new technologies. "They've grown up with this technology, they are connected, and this is the way they've always worked," he says.
Ferguson has enlisted five or six student developers to work 25 hours a week on new projects. So far, it's been a win-win situation: The students are teaching the IT staffers a lot about emerging technologies, and the veteran IT professionals are helping the students understand what it takes to write back-end applications as well as teaching them about enterprise issues like authentication and security.
Automating Mobile Development
At international freight transportation company CSX, the IT department is using automated tools to manage its lengthy queue of projects, especially those that involve mobile development.
Demand from business users for mobile apps was outstripping the IT department's ability to keep pace, according to Jon Yuan, a solutions architect on CSX's enterprise architecture team.
What's more, because CSX has a liberal bring-your-own-device policy, IT was struggling to stay on top of the wide range of platforms it needed to support, principally Apple iOS and several flavors of Android.
"We're finding that mobile is a different animal. There are considerations that we didn't have to take into account with past technologies," not to mention business users who expect fast turnaround, Yuan says. "People are used to getting things in near real time. They don't want to wait six months for new functionality."
To help expedite development, the IT shop turned to a mobile enterprise application platform (MEAP) from Verivo (formerly Pyxis Mobile).
MEAP tools allow developers to design an app once and then quickly deploy it on any of a variety of mobile platforms -- without writing unique versions for each one, Yuan explains.
Instead of having to recode apps to support each individual Android device and for every operating system upgrade, Yuan's team now develops apps using the MEAP's drag-and-drop development environment. Subsequently, they can deploy the app to run on any device without modification.
At Aspen Skiing, being responsive to user demand for new technologies, in a fiscally responsible way, defines this new era of IT, says Major.
Without formal methodologies for prioritization and proactive governance, IT departments run the risk of being marginalized -- a risk that Major says he's not willing to take.
"There is not enough space today to miss important technology opportunities. You will be overrun by rogue IT," he says. "Departments will take things into their own hands."
The result, he says, is something most IT managers don't like to contemplate: "Instead of strategic technology decisions, you will end up with one-off projects that go well for six to nine months, and then IT is overrun with calls from people looking for support."
Stackpole, a frequent Computerworld contributor, has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.