Internet climbs into I/S top five

One of the fascinations of doing demand-side market research is seeing the trends unfold in the user information systems (I/S) organizations. The ensuing pie and bar charts represent the rise and fall of sundry technologies -- and the myriad vendors supporting porting those technologies. In one sense, the charts are the touchstone of reality. In a world where the press and analyst communities can easily "adopt" new technologies with some research and a new sheet of paper in the printer, the various diagrams reflect the more complex and lengthy task of merging new technologies into I/S mainstream development. As with client/server technology, we saw the year-by-year growth as acceptance and the complexity of implementation moved from the pioneers to the early adopters, and eventually into the I/S majority. Today, we see the same phenomena with Internet and Java, albeit at a much faster pace.

Technology is not the only area that evolves. Research from 1997 reflects what we believe is a formidable change in organizational status and implied areas of responsibilities for corporate I/S -- a change that may well be more difficult to manage than the current rush of unfolding technologies.

Data, data and more data

The raw data from our annual development trends survey is in ... and our sincere thanks to the ADT readers who participated in this stamina-wrenching research project. Now comes the equally formidable task of interpreting and cross-referencing the data ... and generating that Executive Summary many of you requested. In the meantime, we will use this column to present some of the more interesting results.

Nearly everyone expected the Internet-related responses to be high, but the magnitude of the response was nothing short of awesome. Nearly 80% of respondents indicated that "Exploit Internet/Intranet Technology" is on their I/S activities list. This percentage is up significantly from last year's 62.5%, and is among the top five initiatives. It also showed the highest percentage increase -- up 16.7 percentage points from the previous survey. At the near 80% mark, "Exploit Internet/Intranet Technology" now rivals two of the highest response percentages in the survey -- the use of Windows 95 on the desktop and the use of NT as a development platform. Not bad for a technology that is still in its infancy, or at most, in its adolescence.

While the numbers are high, they do not necessarily mean every I/S organization in the world is tumbling willy-nilly and head-long into building Internet-enabled business-critical systems. Yes, the trend is toward net-enabling mission-critical applications. But there is also a sense (from responses to other questions) the march into the world of the Internet, Intranets and Extranets is generally measured and planned -- a far cry from the ready-fire-aim approach taken with the early RAD tools.

The I/S hot seat

Not that we are telling I/S groups something new here, but the research confirms a heightening demand for I/S organizations to improve the quality of their deliverables, accelerate the schedule for those deliverables and do it all at a lower cost.

IMPROVED QUALITY One has to wonder if the responses to this question might be a little bit of motherhood and apple pie. On the other hand, there are changes afoot that drive the quality issue. The sheer visibility of Internet applications is one of those changes. Net-enabled applications are not isolated and protected from the eyes and keyboards of top level managers. Now, the results of I/S development efforts will be out there for all to see. And where an unsatisfied consumer will just quietly leave, a dissatisfied CEO is not likely to be so reticent.

Another quality driver comes from the answer to the research question "Who funds I/S projects?" Our respondents indicated business units were just as likely to be the source of funding as a corporate I/S fund. While the relationships between business units and I/S groups are as varied as the parties involved, the business unit's sense of ownership that comes from funding a project begets a natural tendency to want a quality deliverable.

COMPRESSED DEVELOPMENT SCHEDULES Among the top five initiatives, this item garnered the second largest percentage growth -- up 14.4% from last year's survey. What becomes interesting here is the class of application these I/S respondents say they are developing. Over 50% of respondents indicated they are delivering mission-critical applications. In this context, the pressure to bring these applications to market is readily understandable.

We believe there is another aspect to this time-to-market issue -- the predicted increase in tool suites that promise increased productivity. In addition to all things related to the Internet and Java, the following have predicted growth rates of differing magnitude over the next two years: modeling, rule-based development, horizontal and vertical frameworks.

COST REDUCTION You are not alone as an I/S professional if you have been feeling that cost issues are becoming more important. In contrast to last year's survey, respondents to this survey reflect an increasing emphasis on issues relating to I/S expenses. There is obviously a cost aspect in the initiative to develop applications at a faster pace. But our respondents also highlighted the issues associated with system maintenance and other hidden costs associated with client/server technology.

There is no doubt that client/server technology is a boon to productivity. As a user with a laptop, who does as much work at home as in the office, I cannot imagine life without Office 95 ... oops, Office 97 as of January 19. But that productivity comes with a price tag. The upgrade from 95 to 97 meant that I/S had to "touch" everyone's PC, an irritating, non-productive task in small companies like SPG and a huge time sink in large companies. Obviously the focus on zero administration facilities, NCs and the promise of the Internet's automatic delivery mechanisms should help the situation. But in the world of business and I/S, things just do not happen overnight, and it will take time to integrate these new technologies and the systems/infrastructure on which they run.

Centralize the control of I/S
Nearly 50% of respondents indicated they were centralizing the control of I/S resources, compared with 15% who were decentralizing the control. For those 50%, we believe this task may well be your most significant challenge.

Once surrounded by impenetrable glass houses, the 80s saw the power and influence of corporate I/S groups erode in favor of the distributed (and frequently isolated) computing paradigm. As we approach the turn of the century, it would appear the balance is again shifting. Corporate I/S groups are once again moving into the spotlight -- and facing increased pressure to fulfill the responsibilities of this new role.

While organizational power structures naturally tend to cycle, SPG Analyst Services believes the Internet is one of the major catalysts driving this particular organizational shift. In the heydays of distributed computing, this often meant customers had to contact several groups to review their total account status. Naturally, because each line of business had its own system -- savings, checking, mortgage, home equity, credit card, etc. The Internet changes all that, both from the mindset of today's customers and from the perspective of providing a single, standard and controlled entry point into a corporation's business processes. With the current business focus on customer service and the capabilities provided by the Internet, the tendency is now to integrate access to those systems. And corporate groups are the natural leaders of this integration effort. In some cases, the applications are being totally re-designed and re-written. In others, the systems are being integrated by bridging software that links them to various systems with the click of a mouse.

Not for the faint-hearted

The world of corporate I/S is not for the faint-hearted. Manage a corporate integration effort across lines of business that may or may not want to be integrated. Improve the quality of I/S products and services. Develop applications faster. Reduce I/S
expenses. Exploit new technology that is evolving at breakneck speed. And if you have not already done so, deal with the year 2000 issues. It is no wonder CIOs are on the endangered species list and battle-hardened designers and developers with good track records are worth their weight in gold.

Is there a model for success? From the I/S groups we have talked with, the answer is yes and no. There does not seem to be a cookie cutter approach that consistently works -- either in terms of organizational or technology solutions. The commonality among the successful I/S groups? They all have a plan and they are very focused on implementing that plan. Some groups have a strong central team implementing new systems. Others have developed more of an integrate-the-teams-and-systems-we-have approach. Some have migrated from the mainframe to client/server and will move to the Internet when the time is right. Some will leap right from the mainframe to Internet-enablement. But they all have a plan, a long range vision, that works best for their company in their market.

About the Author

Sandra Taylor is director of SPG Analyst Services, Natick, Mass.