Should IT play second fiddle?

When the going gets tough, IT gets going...out the door, that is.

When the going gets tough, IT gets going...out the door, that is.

Over the past couple of years, tech budgets were either slashed or projects put on the back burner in efforts to cope with the bleak market climate.

Even with the recovering economy, many businesses today remain cautious about how much investment they pump into their IT initiatives, choosing instead to roll out only critical maintenance and low-risk small-scale projects.

There's much stronger focus on returns on investment (ROI) and every IT dollar needs to be justified before CIOs are given the go-ahead.

This was evident in the latest ZDNet Asia IT Priorities Survey where 90.1 percent of respondents pointed to cost savings as a top priority, alongside increasing productivity at 90.8 percent. Conducted in July, the survey polled 3,657 IT decision makers across the Asia-Pacific region, including Singapore, China, Malaysia and India.

Graeme Philipson, research director at Connection Research which analyzed the survey data, noted that businesses in the region continued to emphasize a need for efficiency and to do more with less. They noted a stronger requirement to justify any IT expenditure--this despite the fact that over half of respondents had bigger IT budgets to play with over the past year.

Philipson observed: "IT exists primarily as an enabling technology, not as an end in itself. With the relative maturing of many technologies, with continued adverse economic conditions and with an increased desire to see faster and more visible ROI, IT priorities are increasingly taking a backseat to business priorities. Such is the world of IT investment in the 21st century."

Industry watchers have long talked about the need for IT to be aligned with business requirements so it's great to see that companies are now putting this into practice.

Technology was first introduced into the enterprise environment primarily to improve work processes and efficiencies, allowing organizations to better focus on their core competencies. This vision sometimes got mislaid, especially over the past decade which saw an exciting onslaught of cool gadgetry and technologies introduced in the market.

But will the heightened awareness for real ROI eventually push IT too far back into the "backseat", as Philipson described?

CIOs should realize the importance of ensuring each IT dollar they seek from the board is justifiable and necessary for the business. Identifying the returns, both tangible and intangible, is critical because it will help ensure only technology that's able to bring real value to the company is introduced and implemented.

However, if CIOs find themselves spending most of their days in the office behind an abacus, they may end up proposing IT initiatives with guaranteed and immediate financial returns--and often, these are long-established technologies with a proven history. This pretty much rules out younger, less mature but more innovative technology which may provide companies their much-needed competitive edge.

I'm pretty sure for every 10 ideas the likes of Google and Apple have experimented in their R&D labs, only one will eventually see daylight.

While it is true that IT shouldn't take centerstage, it shouldn't play second fiddle either in any organization that wants to lead in the market it competes in. Instead, IT should play a supporting role, enabling enterprises to not only achieve better efficiencies but also introduce new products and services that it wouldn't otherwise be able to without the help of technology.

After all, even supporting actors are recognized at the Oscars.