Coming: IT That Adapts To Users Needs

Updated: Aug 25 2004, 05:30am hrs
The march of information technology into the workplace has been greeted with a mix of awe and resistance. For all their promise of productivity gains, computers, business software and telecommunications gear have disrupted processes at the core of a companys identity.

Businesses and other organisations, in truth, have spent decades adapting their paper trails and word-of-mouth ways to inflexible technology that was supposed to make them more efficient. They jury-rigged equipment to make it do what they needed. Or they did end runs around new technology and reverted to familiar operations.

Technology was expensive to install, difficult to maintain and often didnt mirror the processes the business executives had in mind, said Frank Gens, senior vice-president for research at International Data Corp, the Framingham-based technology research firm.

The next generation of information technology will be dynamic IT, according to IDC. And in contrast to what has come before, it will offer customised products and services that support organisations efforts to stay ahead of the galloping pace of change.

In an executive insights report published in May, a team of IDC analysts outlined the challenge facing todays technology buyers.

The days of long-lasting market stability and competitive advantage are over (if they ever really existed at all), the IDC report noted soberly. Management priorities are increasingly driven by the need to respond quickly and effectively to fast-moving market dynamics. The ability to respond effectively to market change to continually establish and re-establish temporary competitive advantage is becoming the single most critical competence for enterprises.

More than ever, technology must be integrated with strategy, said Gens, one of the authors of the IDC report. That means more flexible computers, modular applications that are highly adaptable and service-oriented software architecture. It also means more reliable standards enabling products from different vendors to work together.

Were having to become an outside-in industry and focus on what are the uses of all of this technology, Gens said. Vendors in the past were guilty of inside-out thinking, which too often exalted technology and ignored what customers wanted to do with it, he said.

As recently as the 1980s, executives at John Hancock Financial Services Inc abandoned a quest for an electronic system that would give them a single view of their customers so they could cross-sell to buyers of annuities, insurance policies, and mortgages.

The software programs that then existed were prohibitively expensive and unable to do what the Hancock executives wanted.

You scratch the surface of any company, from a Citibank to a Federal Express and theyve all had their horror stories, said Judith Hurwitz, president of the software strategy and consulting firm Hurwitz & Associates in Wellesley. And none of them like to talk about it.

Today, systems like the one sought by Hancock are commonplace at financial services firms.

Corporations like Pfizer Inc have developed management approval software consolidating multiple programs for green-lighting projects, budgets and travel. And retailers like Staples Inc deploy store replenishment applications to manage their inventories.

Hurwitz calls the new technology model dynamic response, because it allows companies to respond quickly to market developments. Shes been talking to her clients about it for two years.

Software is beginning to get to that area where you have building blocks, she said. You create these modular, flexible pieces of code that can be linked together and then you spend all of your time building something that can give you business process differentiation.

Companies that combine applications effectively to master functions from claims processing to financial transactions have begun marketing these services to other companies in effect becoming software vendors themselves.

Some of the independent Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance plans have moved in that direction.

The emerging trend of dynamic IT creates opportunities not only for these companies but also for systems integrators, technology services firms, and even traditional high-tech vendors seeking to move up the food chain.

By cobbling together what IDC calls hinge technologies, from access and interface services to business monitoring and analytics, they can expand their markets.

ROBERT WEISMAN / NY TIMES