Success starts with integrated IT architecture

Despite the trauma surrounding the high-profile failures of a rash of dot-coms, the rise and fall of these companies has forever changed the way business people think about technology.

Despite the trauma surrounding the high-profile failures of a rash of dot-coms, the rise and fall of these companies has forever changed the way business people think about technology.

In a relatively short period of time, many start-up companies have been able to create dynamic operations. This progress, known as internet time, is much more than just a cute phrase to describe the passage of time for people who put in a lot of hours at a start-up.

In fact, the reason many start-ups still pose a threat to traditional brick-and-mortar companies is their strategic use of information technology to rapidly deliver new products and services to market. And the way many of them have accomplished this is by adhering to some fairly disciplined approaches to building their technology infrastructure.

Information technology is now widely perceived as a key asset that can help companies cut their time to market and gain a sustainable edge over slower-moving rivals. This awareness is a sort of mixed blessing, however. Business executives at brick-and-mortar companies are now more aware of what is possible, but as they look at their own internal IT departments, they may not like or understand what they see.

The truth is that most companies today do not have an integrated IT architecture. Instead, they continue to pursue each individual engagement as a discrete application. Now there's no question that building an integrated architecture that makes it easier to integrate applications takes a lot of time and money, but the long-term benefits to your organization are immense. And with each successive application, the benefits of being able to pull data from other applications becomes more and more apparent.

Unfortunately, most companies are looking for a little more in the way of instant gratification. So instead of taking the time to build an architecture, they opt just to build another CRM (customer relationship management) or e-procurement application alongside their existing application. There is no doubt that this approach is going to get those applications up and running faster than if they decided to build an integrated architecture first, but each successive stand-alone application just contributes to a bigger long-term problem.

Unless all of these applications are integrated, a company is not really leveraging its knowledge assets. Instead, employees dealing with different aspects of the business are using different types of applications, frequently trying to capture the same types of data in each application. As a result, they don't have a total picture of the business opportunity at hand. This is not only inefficient in terms of labour, it's also a lost opportunity to create a bigger stream of revenue from each individual business engagement.

It will probably be a while before most business executives finally understand the link between integrated applications and the business as a whole, but the good news is that more and more of them seem to be getting it.

This presents IT people with a huge opportunity. For years we've been saying that IT investments can help drive a business forward. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan credited the efficiencies created by information technology as reason we didn't experience an inflationary cycle during a decade of economic growth.

So now is the time to take things to the next level, especially when business managers everywhere want to transform their companies into e-businesses. Now most of them have no idea what that really means and what it will take to accomplish that goal. But with a little guidance from IT, they might suddenly get very excited about integrated application architecture.

The only thing that's missing in that equation is leadership. But give it a try. You might find yourself sitting in the CEO chair as one of the few people who actually sees the big picture.

Michael Vizard is editor in chief of InfoWorld.

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