Information Technology Blog

What are the biggest projects and challenges for company IT leaders?
Information Technology Blog

J. J. Brantingham
 
CIO, Sebesta Blomberg & Associates, Inc., Roseville (engineering and design firm)
 
Minnesota employees: 90
 
IT staffers: 3
 
 
 
I’d say our biggest challenge right now is to begin to position our internal systems to be moved to hosted or cloud platforms, which may not be ready for prime time today, but do offer a lot of potential value and savings down the road. We’re also doing what we can to avoid large capital investments that will be marginalized in a few years by hosted and SaaS services.
 
We’ve been working on a lot of infrastructure projects: virtualization, exchange 2010 cluster, bandwidth and carrier upgrades, load balancing and network shaping equipment, monitoring systems, and mobile voice pilots. For 2011, we’ll be wrapping up a lot of last year’s projects and moving onto PBX replacement with Microsoft Lync, customer relationship management software upgrades, desktop video, and a variety of SharePoint projects.
 
Microsoft OCS and Livemeeting was a pretty big success; many employees have embraced the presence, sharing, and chat. Moving forward, I expect our mobile offline CRM should be a big hit. The Microsoft Lync platform has potential to save us a ton in telephone and equipment costs and position us to do more mobile and home-office work, and significantly reduce our infrastructure costs. I see SharePoint continuing to improve and integrate more pieces of the business as well.
 
Over the next 3 to 5 years, I believe the cloud will have a huge impact on everything from e-mail hosting, to collaboration platforms and voice and video. We’re waiting on providers to mature their security, recovery, and overall feature set. I’m cautious of the evolution of the market itself. I don’t want to be on a provider that’s a likely acquisition candidate, and it’s a little too early to tell who’s going to be part of the consolidation.
Todd Wickard
 
Former vice president of information technology, Cemstone Products Company, Mendota Heights (ready-mix concrete and aggregate products)
 
Minnesota employees: 650
 
IT staffers: 8
 
 
 
We’re under constant pressure to do more with less. As a supplier to an extremely depressed construction industry, Cemstone’s revenues remain significantly off from their peaks of several years ago. IT is challenged to deliver projects with short-term ROI—one year or less if possible—as we wait for the industry to rebound.
 
Understandably, business unit leaders have been less eager to take on IT projects that require significant labor from their own slimmed-down departments. The lack of business-side staffing either delays projects or further increases the pressure on IT as it is forced to supplement project resources.
 
Server virtualization has been particularly beneficial for us—we are now 80 percent virtualized. Our data center hardware refresh cycle demands have dropped significantly due to the consolidation. We’re better positioned for expanded disaster recovery efforts.
 
We’ve also partnered with a local telecom lifecycle management company (Renodis Telecom Solutions) for the past several years. From monthly telecom invoice reviews to carrier negotiations to project management, Renodis sorts out the telecom nightmare we face with our 75 sites. Between back office and IT, we’ve been able to save the cost of extra employees.
 
We’ve spent the last 12 months working on integrating a past acquisition into our enterprise resource planning (ERP) system as well as fully implementing our ERP purchasing module throughout one of our manufacturing businesses. From an infrastructure perspective, we replaced our time-division multiplexing (TDM) phone system with voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) and integrated 20 sites.
 
In 2011, we’ll be focused on consolidating our billing systems and enabling several methods for electronic billing. In addition to some printing and postage savings, we’ll be getting information to our customers quicker to help their project accounting and progress billings. Another project will provide reporting and analysis to our customers on their projects with us.
 
As you can imagine, with a small IT staff supporting a large, geographically distributed company like Cemstone, we rely on third parties to provide a lot of support. As a result, I spend a significant portion of my time maintaining vendor relationships and negotiating agreements.
Erik Hinkie
 
CIO, Holmes Corporation, Eagan (instructional design products and services)
 
Minnesota employees: 60
 
IT staffers: 4
 
 
 
The biggest challenge for our IT department is the constant pressure of getting pulled in a lot of different directions. We strive to offer a high level of service to our internal and external customers. However, being a small firm with limited resources, we are constantly rebalancing priorities as organizational needs change.
 
We take the approach of embracing and securing (as much as we can) employee-owned or preferred technology and support mobile devices, tablet computers, etcetera. Most folks will find the most efficient way to work on their own, and throwing barriers in front of them to discourage use of non-preferred technology does nothing more than encourage them to find ways around these barriers.
 
We spent a lot of time in 2010 on migrating to a new e-commerce infrastructure, and a variety of process improvement projects to drive organizational efficiency. We will continue to focus heavily on process improvement in 2011, and continue virtualizing our infrastructure as aging equipment is retired.
 
Migration to a new e-commerce infrastructure has allowed us to more fully integrate customer-entered orders into our accounting system, as well as given our internal customer service team a more efficient method of order entry. These improvements saved the team 1,500-plus hours last year alone, allowing them to focus on adding value for customers and revenue generating activities.
 
I spend a fair amount of time working with strategic partners and vendors, working with department heads on process improvement projects, and helping my team by clearing roadblocks and creating space for them to get project work done.
 
 
 
David Lawson
 
Senior vice president of information and strategic resources, Universal Hospital Services, Edina (medical equipment management and services)
 
Minnesota employees: 300 (1,800 nationwide)
 
IT staffers: 30
Smartphones, pad computing, and apps are the megatrend this year. This megatrend is the perfect storm of new expectations from customers, business users, and employees. Figuring out how to meet this expectation is our top challenge this year. What do they want?
 
> Customers want ‘an app for that!’ A Web site just isn’t good enough anymore. Our business-to-business customers expect us to reach out to them in a new way.
 
> Employees don’t want to carry two phones. The trend towards employee-owned phones is really driven by employee preference. They want to conduct company business on their personal devices if possible.
 
> Make it look easy! The expectation is, of course, that the underlying architecture and applications will run every day and cost reduction trends will continue. We must connect and integrate to the new frontier, guard the doors with top notch security, and provide support for numerous new devices.
 
Last year, UHS extended its business right to the customer by creating a new Web customer portal. Customers can transact with us the way they want to. We delivered mass customization to meet customers’ preferred business processes and controls. The result: We are more strongly connected to our customers.
 
This year it is all about cracking the code on mobile computing. We expect the typical efficiencies that come from process improvement and work step optimization. But more than that, we expect to be able to make new, younger, workers productive quicker by making the applications more obvious. To accelerate learning, we will serve up training and performance support at the moment they need it in the form of short video clips. GPS technology attached to mobile devices will give us a new vantage point that will optimize the deployment and logistics of our human capital, vehicles, and equipment fleet.