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Why today's CIO must foster IT agility

Robin Johnson | Nov. 3, 2011
Dell CIO Robin Johnson explains how a company's lack of agility, the inability of its IT infrastructure to quickly incorporate a new business process that would give it a competitive edge, can be costly.

Survival for the CIO in that kind of environment means keeping the business happy and fulfilling its requests - the "order taker" IT model. The CIO can see the entire business process but isn't empowered to do anything about it except point out the potential pitfalls and functional disconnects. It's a no-win situation at best and an efficiency-killer at worst.

The agility so many companies lack is elusive because it requires investment in streamlining your systems. Eliminating regional variations of the same application. Reducing their number. Virtualizing servers. And streamlining isn't sexy. In a tough economy, it doesn't seem pressing. It can wait until next year. Then the day comes when it would be nice to add a new payment option or roll out a new product, and the IT department can't accommodate a request that would make a real difference to the bottom line.

Deferring the IT investment that increases agility isn't a way to curb costs, it's a means of subsidizing inefficiency. It used to be that a company would decide to implement a new business process and then cobble together the systems to make it work. But that's not possible any longer. The systems must be nimble enough to accommodate new business processes as they come along, immediately.

It's no coincidence that the examples I've given touch on the company Website and its ability to incorporate new products or processes. Online is the perfect illustration of the degree to which the distinction between business and technology is vanishing. Technology was once a tool that facilitated business functions, but now it's embedded in every aspect of the business. We can no longer separate technology from the business process it enables.

Online doesn't exist without technology; online is technology. So are social media and your company's effort to monitor and respond to conversations about your brand that are happening on the Web. Nearly all the functions that are critical to marketing are technology- driven-forecasting demand for products, generating leads, delivering your message. And on and on. Sales, service, communication-all are inextricably linked to technology. The data center is the very least of it.

When Dell recognized this paradigm shift several years ago, we realized that we had 8,000 applications on our servers, many of which duplicated the functions of the others. As Dell grew, each department had chosen its own software and housed it on a dedicated server. So we worked with each division to choose standards and we've reduced the number of applications to 2,200 and counting (down). We automated processes like resetting a user password or reimaging a client system, freeing up the service desk to focus on more-critical issues.


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