Peek at the Future

Peek at the Future

To be sure, there's nothing especially new about a business-technology project team. But iSTARK—"stark" means ultra-strong in German—provides a peek at the future. Codack's team is one of the early examples of the kinds of teams that Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner, Inc., for one, says a majority of companies will be creating over the next six years to wire up their operations to the Net, both here and abroad. The iSTARK team is elite, it's got clout that goes well beyond the IT department, and, like an Alpha squad on the front lines of battle, it's being charged with instigating global e-business projects that will give Holderbank's member companies the technology they need to drive the business and compete better against rivals. Such operational teams represent a new trend in technology-business teamwork that's just starting to take hold at companies around the world. While iSTARK may be more ambitious than most, dozens of companies—from Bayer to Shell Oil to Ingram Micro—are deploying these new types of CIO-led project teams to boost productivity, cut costs, and respond faster to customers at home and abroad.

"It's no longer the case that companies are just forming teams within their own walls," says Jessica Lipnack, co-author of Virtual Teams. "Now they're forming teams across company lines and national borders. So you have teams that are cross-organizational, cross-company, cross-culture, cross-hierarchy, cross-technologies, cross-languages, cross-functional—cross-everything."

A recent Gartner study says the spread of globalization, e-commerce and the cost-cutting potential of the Net have made these projects "mission-critical to many enterprises." More than ever, the study notes, "technology is critical to the business, and companies need to take further steps to reduce the threat of cancelled technology projects, ballooning costs and ever-receding delivery dates."

According to Sarah Moulton Reger, a teams expert at IBM's Business Innovations Services, e-business requires companies to create a powerful new kind of team to be able to meet the unique complexity and speed challenges involved in wiring up operations to the Net. "The fact that e-business touches all functions, can change the culture and requires companies to move fast to implement these projects means you have to bring a lot of people together quickly to keep your rivals from eating your lunch," Reger says. Building new cross-functional, cross-operational teams can boost companies' chances for success.

Unlike traditional technology project teams, this new breed is more global, more disciplined and more accountable. So far, says Jim Johnson, chairman of The Standish Group International, a research firm based in West Yarmouth, Mass., these new teams can, on average, cut error rates and waste, for example, by 30 percent to 40 percent.

What makes these teams so effective? For one, in most cases, they're being modeled after—or becoming extensions of—the crisis management teams or "war-rooms" built by companies to beat the Y2K bug on time, within budget and at minimal disruption to day-to-day operations. Gartner says that 40 percent of its corporate clients still have these project management offices in place, and most of them are being retooled to better manage future e-business rollouts. "These offices are the chief way that many companies will gear up for e-business over the next four to five years, says Matt Light, a Gartner research director.

Not all the teams are alike. "These new teams are smaller, more user-friendly and more highly focused on results, so their success rate is prone to be much higher, and user needs can be satisfied more quickly," says Standish Group's Johnson. "If the application is critical to the business, the business naturally is going to benefit."

Typically, these new teams have extensive representation from the business side. Codack's team, for example, includes a project sponsor from manufacturing; a full-time CTO; two full-time people who focus on content management; sales, administration and engineering representatives, and various project analysts and account managers. Each time the team moves into a new country, Codack uses his account managers to acclimate local staffers to the project, get their buy-in, and brief them on scheduling and project details. "They get close to the locals and get them jazzed about all the changes that are coming," says Terry Stuart, a partner at Deloitte and Touche who is helping Codack create the initiative for Holderbank (which will change its name to Holcim Ltd. this summer). Codack then sends team analysts into client companies to size up their systems, find out what versions of software they're running and what sorts of middleware is best suited to tie them into the overall IS operation.

"One of my key challenges is to retain as much consistency with the system as possible while providing the flexibility customers in each country require," Codack says.

But speedier, payoff-conscious tech rollouts aren't the only benefit of these new-age teams. By their very scope and nature, they are also starting to rewire the corporate culture. At Ingram Micro, for example, a set of eight high-powered tech-business teams are completely replacing the company's old departmental structure (see Case in Point) to make the whole company more customer-centric. In place of the accounting department, for example, now there's a team composed of people from sales, IT, marketing and finance who work together to figure out such traditional accounting tasks as pricing.

"We're dividing work into teams based on function, not process," says Ingram Micro CIO Guy Abramo. "People see their jobs differently now and are more focused on the customer. We're more focused on competitors, too, now that there's less rivalry internally."

Another benefit of these teams is that they can cut through old-style corporate bureaucracy to speed decision-making on key projects. GFInet, a Wall Street brokerage, uses companywide cross-functional teams to help move new financial services products to market. GFInet CIO Russ Lewis recently reorganized the 14-year-old business into three teams. Called the Triangle, these teams are divided into product development, business payoff and technology solution groups.

Early results are good: Lewis estimates that the use of these teams has cut by one-third the time it takes to initiate a new tech project. "Turnaround time is much faster," Lewis says. "With teams organized by function, you have all the players you need to make decisions in the right place at any given time. A lot of time on these technology-business projects is spent simply getting to the point of 'go' or 'no-go.' By using these new teams, that time has been reduced significantly."

This article was originally published on 05-01-2001
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