Does Slow Down Mean Speed Up?

Now what? In the face of a deepening business slowdown, a global credit crunch and a wildly fluctuating stock market, what should corporate IT shops do next? Gartner's top answer at its Symposium/ITxpo 2008 conference this month: Prepare for hiring freezes and layoffs.

Yeah, we could do that. Or we could kick IT into high gear.

No doubt the budget cuts will come, and we have to be ready for them -- freezes, layoffs and all. We don't need the sages of Stamford to tell us that.

But if we really want to be a useful part of the businesses we serve, we can do something a lot more valuable: deliver competitive advantage.

See, there's a fundamental paradox about business slowdowns and IT. When business is brisk, IT has the time for big projects with long schedules. But when business is slow, we have to move fast.

Confused? Think about it. In a good business environment, there's plenty of low-hanging fruit for salespeople, and plenty of budget for IT. That's when we get the green light for big infrastructure projects and process improvements that may not pay off immediately. Why? Because the money is there. Why is it there? Because it's easier for the sales guys to keep the orders coming in.

In an expanding market, there's more money to go around. Competition is likely to be less intense. The pressure is off. We can take our time.

Now, what happens when business dries up? Companies have to cut costs, streamline processes -- and steal business from competitors.

The first one is obvious. The second makes sense to process-oriented people like us. But why focus on stealing business from competitors?

Because that's the only place it can come from. Remember, the market is shrinking, not expanding. We have to gain market share just to stay even. So the heat is on. Never mind growth -- just to hold our own, our salespeople have to keep our own customers while they lure business away from our competitors.

And how can they steal those customers and their orders? That tends to be highly tactical. Maybe it's a price cut that happens a little sooner than the competition's. Maybe it's an order that's confirmed more quickly. Maybe it hinges on a salesman's ability to pull up the numbers he needs on a moment's notice to close the deal.

But it's almost always about speed. Not just how fast sales can act, but how quickly IT can set up salespeople with the tactical tools they need.

To steal customers and business, a salesman has to move fast. And that means we do too.

Of course, that need for speed doesn't end with sales guys. The sooner we can cut costs and streamline processes, the sooner they'll show up on the bottom line. We have to do that. All our competitors will, too.

But shifting into high gear on tactical requests from users, so that they can offer something our competition can't immediately match? That's the very definition of competitive advantage.

Understand, those tactical deliverables often aren't pretty. They're inelegant, rushed and messy. They're enough to get the job done. They test the limits of our project management skills, business knowledge and professionalism.

They're a long way from business as usual for IT. They're also exactly what our businesses need right now.

So that's what's next: We can kick IT into high gear and create a competitive advantage.

Or we can roll over and wait for the ax to fall.

Frank Hayes is Computerworld's senior news columnist. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld 's print edition.

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