Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: How To Make IT More Agile

Quick-impact IT projects that offer rapid returns

Keeping end users satisfied is paramount for CIOs. IT can help by knocking out these quick-to-implement projects.

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Image: iStock
The average IT project takes four to six months to complete, with highly complex projects such as purchasing and integrating an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system taking upwards of one year to finish. Even though this is faster than the previous average of 18 months, end users are still impatient about how long it takes to complete an IT project.

End users want new IT projects to immediately impact the business, and they don't want to hear about the complexities of system integration or the behind-the-scenes details, including the time it takes to develop, test, and produce mission-critical systems.

The reality is that large-scale enterprise projects are complex, risky, and time-consuming. These projects often come with multiple integration challenges and multiple vendors to manage, and they are not going away. So how can you quickly demonstrate results to customers that give them the IT they want? We'll cover that, but first, let's take a look at the projects that IT should not accept.

Large scope, infrastructure- and interface-intensive projects with multiple vendors

If you're trying to factor in a number of high-impact projects with rapid turnaround in your IT workload, any project that involves substantial work on IT infrastructure, interfaces and so on, or that involves multiple vendors, should be avoided.

Projects without clearly-defined requirements, deliverables, or endpoints from the end business

A project that is constantly subject to enhancements and project scope revisions will be virtually impossible to complete.

Projects that demand IT resources that are unavailable

Quick-impact projects require quick-impact IT. For instance, if you are going to develop a small database, make sure that a junior database analyst, with the assistance of your chief DBA, can quickly get it ready. If you have to wait for the DBA to become available, the project could end up stalling.

Now that you know these guidelines, here are the eight types of IT projects that have proven to be quick impact, and offer a rapid return for end users.

1: Projects with a limited scope, and that engage users in design, prototyping, and testing

Let's say a manufacturer has a goal of implementing 'smart' 24/7 uptime manufacturing. The grand vision is to monitor all machines and building maintenance equipment so personnel can repair machines and environmental units before they fail. On the surface, this is an exceptionally complex project that could involve equipment and sensors from many vendors, and a need to pull this disparate data together into a single network. An alternate approach is to pick one component that's likely the easiest to gain initial results from and monitor it.

A reasonable choice might be to monitor building thermostats for temperature control and energy savings, since many thermostat manufacturers already have sensors and data interfaces to standard networks. With this limited project scope, you can deliver immediate visibility and business value from machine sensor data to your managers, and build the organization's confidence level in IT's ability to return value in Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

Application developers have the ability to prototype different reporting formats with management in the test stages of the application, so management always has full visibility and buy-in during the application development process.

2: Data marts/reporting

Marketing departments are excellent examples of where rapid turnaround of an IT project can help; this is because many marketers are creative, but they are not as adept at putting together marketing databases that can assist them in analyzing customer demographics. IT can work with marketers to identify the demographic information they want and then copy a section of a master database into a marketing data mart that gets refreshed at regular intervals.

Commercial database and report-generation tools enable the rapid creation of data marts and reports. The data mart can also be set up for marketers to use classic spreadsheet reports that they can create on their own. Marketing gets immediate business value; they can better analyze demographics for new campaigns; and they can create reports for upper management and boardroom presentations.

3: Dashboards

The widespread use of mobile devices has elevated the value of dashboard applications that can inform an executive on the go if his or her supply chain is running well, or if there is stoppage in another mission-critical system that could impact the business. The good news is that most software vendors now include dashboard best practices and/or applications that IT can quickly provision for end users. The dashboards give end users 'single glance' visibility of system and business status, and a means of immediately acting on the information they are getting.

4: Virtual resource provisioning/on-demand cloud

Year-end financial processing or mid-campaign increases in sales and order activity can demand more IT resources than were originally planned. IT can help itself and its end users by using virtual processing and storage in a cloud environment that can be deployed on demand -- without the need for staff to manually prepare physical servers and storage. End users may never know what you have done behind the scenes, but they will notice that even with the unexpected demands of their work, the systems they need are ready to perform on their terms.

5: Graphical user interfaces

An agribusiness company had the best dairy rationing system available, but the system sat on the shelf for two years because its user interface was so lousy. IT decided to 'fix' this system by developing a user-friendly GUI that enabled users to navigate the system easily. Working together with end users, it took IT only three weeks to develop a friendlier user interface. Within six months, over 25 field offices were using the system with great results.

6: 'Road show' IT

Whether it is a trade show, a sporting event, a concert, or a sales event on a car lot, IT's ability to quickly deploy 'road show' IT so end users can try product demos and book orders with customers on the spot does a lot to demonstrate the value of IT to the end business.

7: Office apps

Never underestimate the value of creating new IT for end users in their office apps. Perhaps the best example of rapid-impact IT projects in this area is the ability to spin off big data/analytics into Excel spreadsheet apps that enable end users to manipulate the data and to discover their own results.

Users have the spreadsheet knowledge, but they don't know how to get the big data into the spreadsheets -- this is where IT comes in. IT business analysts can assist end users in developing spreadsheet reports that are best positioned for the analyses and business results that end users want to get. Office app software and data interfaces are already in place, so it can take as little as one day to implement a report.

8: Pain relief projects

A community bank was highly successful in selling its credit card products, but six months after its campaign, it discovered that many of the credit cards it had sold were not being used. Its sales system had been designed to measure initial sales success, but not the continuous use (and profit flows) of the credit cards. It took IT two days to create a report that identified dormant credit card holders so bank personnel could target and encourage these customers to use their cards.

There is no rocket science involved in this type of standard batch-reporting project, but the end users readily perceived its value because it relieved an information pain point by giving them visibility into the long-term results of their marketing campaign, and a way to act on that information.

Conclusion

Most CIOs will tell you that the truly earth-shaking projects in IT involve infrastructure, security/governance/compliance, outside vendor management, end user expectation management, and IT resource management. Although IT project timelines have decreased in the past 10 years, the sheer complexity of these projects still makes them longer -- and subject to more revisions -- than most end users desire or understand.

For this reason, it's a good strategy to have quick-turnaround projects planned that continue to demonstrate the value of IT to end users. Among these quick-to-implement projects are simple online interfaces that can make applications more usable and impactful for end users; the creation of data marts and batch reports that eliminate long-standing business pain points; and dashboard applications that are actionable and that keep executives and line managers informed.

When these rapid impact projects deliver tangible results and help end users, IT re-establishes its business value in the eyes of the organization -- a value that can never be assumed and that must be continually earned.

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