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We've entered the 21st century. Businesses need to rethink how they leverage information technology. From routine operations to enterprise application development, there are major changes taking place. But it's not just the Internet or offshore outsourcing, it's about adding value to your business. It's about accomplishments.

The business of the 21st century must think fast, act faster and follow-through. Technology is a driver and can pull the organization to new heights. But only if IT organizations and service providers abandon the past and embrace change. Adopt a new mindset and embrace the future. Here's how.

(1) Focus on your core competencies and outsource the rest

What value does information technology add to your business? It's not just a matter of enabling work to be done faster and responding to user problems. Maintaining the equipment certainly isn't a strategic skill. In most IT shops, the most valuable IT asset is data. It can be corporate information, customer details, employee statistics, vendor records or physical asset trails.

Protect and preserve your data. Slice it, dice it, mine it, refine it. All the hardware and software components that go into managing and processing the data are simply tools. There are many people out there able and willing to support the tools but only you can extract value from the data.

Also focus on strategic business relationships inside and outside the company. Understand what your user community really needs and do everything you can to provide it. Nurture relationships with a small number of strategic service providers that you can summon in a hurry to deal with a crisis. Be prepared to say "yes" no matter how outlandish the user request.

(2) Prioritize and get more done with less

Focus on high quality results. It's not about how much you get done. It's about how well you do it. Assemble a cross-functional, technology steering committee to identify and prioritize strategic goals and develop projects to accomplish them. Assign an executive sponsor to each project. Meet monthly to review progress and apply mid-course corrections.

Look at IT work that is adding value to the business, supporting revenue and profitability. Don't do any work for which there is no business case.

(3) Keep IT projects short

Reduce project time by limiting functionality to the most critical items and reducing changes to requirements. Cost containment and meeting committed dates are critical goals. Any requirements change that impacts cost or time must be scrutinized and justified. Allow the steering committee to select only the changes that make extending the project's cost or time line worthwhile. Always have written requirements for packaged applications and insist they meet at least 80 percent of the original business requirements and are flexible enough to adapt quickly to changes.

Use "time boxing" to control project schedules. Time boxing sets a deadline, fixes the team size, and adjusts functionality to fit. This works if you have prioritized the feature set thoroughly and everyone accepts that all the features won't make the final release.

(4) Begin to migrate toward a Service-Oriented Architecture

This article can't provide an in-depth explanation of Service-Oriented Architectures (SOA) though you'll hear more about this in future columns. Most of you have heard of web services by now. Until recently, web services were mostly hype and vendor promises. However, this year we'll see a major turning point in the practical usage of web services.

Within 3-5 years we'll see a quantum shift in how application software is built and delivered. The good news is that you'll have more choices and better control over your software environment. The bad news is that your existing network infrastructure will have to change. For now, ask your vendors to explain how they will migrate to and support SOA. If they can't answer the question, find another vendor!

(5) Use open software tools

Finally, open source software is here to stay. Linux, Apache, SendMail, OpenOffice, Mozilla, MySQL, JBoss, CVS, SpamAssassin, etc. are every bit as good, if not better, than their commercial equivalents. Every time you do a vendor evaluation for a software purchase, open source should be on the short list. If you're concerned about support, don't be. IBM, Sun, Oracle, HP, and other major vendors actively offer support options.

There you have it. Welcome to the 21st century. Turn these lean times into a strategic advantage. While your competition struggles with budget cuts, you can be driving the business forward and positioning the company for growth. After all, it's not about technology, it's about business!

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He is an expert in using open source software to increase worker productivity and reduce IT costs.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in March 2004.

To learn more about how DAMICON can help you run a superior IT shop, please take a look at our ADJUNCT CIO™ Program.

Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.