Under the microscope

In 2009, slashed budgets saw innovation in IT fall dramatically as companies tried to keep businesses afloat. With CEOs watching closely, CIOs will have to work much harder to justify their budgets.

Tags: Arab Technology AwardsFinanceRoads and Transport AuthorityUnited Arab Emirates
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By  Imthishan Giado Published  December 15, 2009

It's no secret that most CIOs are openly relieved to have 2009 rapidly receding into their rear view mirrors. While far from being the cataclysm that most analysts predicted in January, there's little doubt that it proved to be a challenging year in terms of IT management. Not just a case of sharply-curtailed budgets and delayed multi-stage projects, there's also been increased scrutiny from top line management about the kinds of investments that are being made.

That last part is particularly interesting to me, as it implies that in the past, the members boardroom was very much content to let the IT team simmer along doing its own thing, rubber-stamping purchases with a flick of the wrist. Today however, virtually every CIO I speak to has stated categorically that every deal is subject to increased examination, particularly from the finance side of things.

Naturally, every CIO also says that's a good thing. For years, they claim, IT has been trying to get the business more involved in how technology integrates with the business and move out of the support arena. With the advent of the recession, everything is now finally coming together, as CIOs work directly with CEOs to identify inefficiencies or possible cost savings and negate them through smart technology investments.

If it's true, it would represent a fabulous turnaround for the fortunes of the unheralded heroes of the IT departments of large enterprises, who are too often treated like a disposable commodity. Unfortunately, it is - to my mind - no more than a pleasant fiction.

Don't get me wrong - IT is definitely moving closer to the business, and we're seeing more and more high-level involvement. But is it a good thing? That's highly debatable. The proof is in the projects and over the last year, we haven't had anything near the number of innovative ideas ACN saw in the 2008.

Instead, what we are seeing is an unending stream of infrastructure projects. Server replacements, software upgrades, certifications - so far, so dull. Very few CIOs are taking on big risks like virtualisation (with some notable exceptions - see our cover star Oasis Hospital last month) or pursuing innovation in a meaningful manner.

And even when they do, they seemed almost embarrassed to admit it. The Dubai Road and Transport Authority's SMS parking project which bagged Government Implementation of the Year at November's Arab Technology Awards is a perfect example, as it was both relatively cheap and easy to implement, while being in absolute alignment with business goals. But we very nearly didn't hear about it at all, as the RTA withdrew their nomination soon after submitting it, for reasons that we can only speculate about.

In my opinion, this kind of play-it-safe approach to technology that is currently taking place in the market can only be the work of accountants, not visionaries who take risks. When money is tight and headcounts are threatened, the only projects that can get through the wall of finance are those that promise the absolute minimum of risk. Let's not talk about return on investment - most enterprises haven't gotten around to that bit yet.

ACN has been here before - I made much the same comments last year in the aftermath of the 2008 Awards. The only difference was, last year it was only some organisations and specific verticals that were experiencing this drought in innovation. This year, the effect seems to be very much across the board.

But nevertheless, let us look on the positive side of things. We haven't heard of too many redundancies on the enterprise IT side (although vendors have taken something of a pounding) while technology investments, if not daring, have at least stayed constant throughout the year. Perhaps sometimes, it's better to have evolution than a revolution.

But I'll be very surprised if that excuse holds good next year for the current crop of lazy CIOs.


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