If not planned in a careful way and overseen with vigilance, IT systems can easily grow into complicated beasts that are hard to manage, overly expensive and, ultimately, a roadblock to corporate success. For many firms, simplifying their systems is the key to ensuring that IT is more of a help than a hindrance. Winnipeg-based furniture manufacturer Palliser Furniture Ltd. has been undertaking its own simplification process for the last three years. CIO Jason Bergeron talks about the difficulties involved and his team's successes. CIO: Can you put into words how difficult it is to keep IT simple?
BERGERON: There is a lot of pressure from the business to keep adding functionality or features or infrastructure for all the different stakeholders in the company, whether it is R&D or production, the manufacturing group, or sales. There are all these different agendas that are happening at the same time, putting pressure on an IT organisation to deliver. It's very easy to just keep reacting to the next thing the business wants and to keep adding to applications or infrastructure over time, until you have this great big mess that no one can manage.
What philosophy do you bring to your work to make sure that doesn't happen at Palliser?
BERGERON: Always ask the business what they are trying to achieve with their request, because a lot of times they will come to you with a solution and just want you to implement it. So really be up front and...make sure that whatever you're looking to buy will fit in with what you have. I have found that IT organisations will overprovision, so you end up with a big data center because you think you're going to grow. You end up with more network capacity than you're going to need and more servers than you need. A lot of that is driven by vendors.
Meaning vendor pressure to buy more than you may require?
BERGERON: Each time you bring a vendor in, they want their application to run on their own server, whether it's a virtual server or a piece of infrastructure. But we question that because I don't want to add servers just because the vendor has said we need to add them. We end up trying things on our own, and then the vendor says 'OK, I guess it works.'
What other approaches do you find help simplify IT?
BERGERON: It's also important to keep in mind what the business does. We're not a bank so we don't need all the data security that a bank does. The bottom line is any competitor can walk into a store where our product is, take pictures and knock it off, so we don't need that security around most of our products.
A big part of it is understanding what it is you do and then targeting your infrastructure so that it matches what the business is trying to accomplish.
Was this a problem for Palliser in the past?
BERGERON: When I started here four years ago we had a data security environment that was very complicated. Different divisions had their own e-directory tree and everything was segregated, and it didn't make any sense. We were protecting data that the business actually wanted us to share, and it was because we had over-provisioned the security.
Do you have any formal procedures in place to ensure IT and business are on the same page?
BERGERON: There is a lot to be said for having a good governance structure in place, and it doesn't have to be over-bureaucratic or complicated. I have a planning team, we talk once a month, we talk about the projects the different business units want to do....A lot of the IT infrastructure and applications get complicated and get expanded because the business units are coming to you and they don't know what you have to offer. You have to have some kind of mechanism for them to bring those requests forward and have a conversation about them. And it's not about them filling out a form and dropping it in IT's mailbox. There are no conversations associated with that.
Was it difficult to establish those meetings? Was there any resistance?
BERGERON: It took a year and a half to get to the point where everyone in the room was having those conversations and didn't feel threatened. Because the first few meetings, everyone wanted this or that and the meetings lasted 10 minutes, because there was no dialogue. But now they last 30 minutes and there is really good value out of that. We'll probably cancel half the requests that come in and we'll solve a bunch of problems.
How difficult is it to tell an executive that a project they want can't be done, for the purposes of simplification?
BERGERON: I have to explain that I'm saying no because there is an additional cost to supporting the project and maintaining it. I'm really up front with those kinds of conversations. And I don't just send an e-mail saying no. Sometimes there are outside pressures, such as things that executives read in airplanes or see other colleagues doing. What I do is say, 'These are the reasons and here are the costs associated with a different solution.'
How important is the buy-in from upper management to be able to say no?
BERGERON: It's very important. I think you have to work at it. When I started here I couldn't say no. I was just building credibility. I spent a lot of time building relationships with senior managers....The buy-in comes from the discussion around the transparency related to the costs of doing some of these things.
When you first applied your simplification philosophy to Palliser, where did you start?
BERGERON: We started with a print consolidation and simplification project. The print technology, copiers and fax machines were all buried in office supply budgets across the entire company. We did a financial analysis and talked with each of the divisions about how we could reduce their print expenses. We showed them the savings and provided a better solution for a much lower cost. That helped me build credibility and it was something I knew very, very well. That's the starting ground to simplification -- you have to start someplace where you will be successful.
What elements of your infrastructure are you looking to simplify in the future?
BERGERON: We needed to make the change to the Microsoft platform. We had a number of different operating systems in our data center and we chose the one that would work a lot better in the future with a lot of other different vendors. We also wanted a platform which had tools that were simpler to use and where the skill set was within the market. We simplified the whole desktop experience, including how you log in in the morning and how the mail servers are configured. On the telecommunications side, we had fiber running between buildings that were built years ago that wasn't being used and we were paying the phone company to do a lot of our stuff, so whenever we wanted to move anything around it was very expensive. We implemented a Cisco voice over IP platform, [partly] because of integration and skill set issues.
What aspects of your business applications are you looking to simplify in the future?
BERGERON: We are going to ask which business applications truly add a competitive advantage. If we don't have a business advantage, why are we customising it and doing something other than what the industry standard is? A lot of applications are complicated and customised, and [when it comes to using them] I often ask the question 'why?' Why do we have, for instance, a different inventory warehouse locator than the one that came with this application? What did we get out of this?
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