Business officials make demands on computer systems


April 26, 1993|By PETER H. LEWIS

Corporate executives appear to be more knowledgeable about computer technology than ever, but they have also become more demanding and less forgiving, a survey has found.

They believe information technologies are the key to competitive advantage. But they also say they have not got their money's worth.

The survey, conducted by the computer industry newspaper Computerworld and Andersen Consulting, also found that 81 percent of top executives are using computers in their daily jobs, nearly double the percentage reported when the survey was first taken four years ago.

More than 200 chief executives, chief operating officers and chief financial officers, representing a range of businesses, participated in the study, the results of which were published in Computerworld last week. Annual company sales ranged from $250 million to $20 billion.

Big companies typically spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year on information technology. But for all that investment, there is "a consistent and persistent gap between what executives think they should get and what they perceive they get," said Bill Laberis, editor of Computerworld.

"More than half agree that they are not getting what they paid for," Laberis said. "When you consider the magnitude of the investment in information systems they make in the course of a year, it's a pretty telling sign."

One problem is that the productivity of the typical white-collar worker has not, by some measures, increased, as many executives expected it to. "There clearly is a gap between what senior executives are looking for" from their information systems "and the way I.S. has been able to support

the level of expenditure in business terms," said Donald P. Monaco, a partner at Andersen Consulting, of Chicago.

Part of the problem may be a lack of communication between chief executives and their technical officers. While information systems executives have generally been brought in for their technical expertise, chief executives are elevated for their business and financial skills. The result? They speak different languages, and their goals are not aligned.

"There's room for improvement in both directions," Monaco said. "Nontechnical executives need to spend at least some time understanding technology to a sufficient degree to have meaningful dialogues with I.S. executives." And technical people need to polish their skills in communicating with other corporate leaders.

The survey suggested that this is happening. A majority (55 percent) of senior executives said their business goals and technology strategies were strongly aligned, up from 37 percent in the year-earlier survey.

"I grew up on the operations side of the banking business, and so I feel comfortable with technology," said John B. McCoy, chairman and chief executive of the Banc One Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, and one of the participants in the survey.

That is not the case for many, however.

"A lot of people are frightened by technology and are not knowledgeable of it, can't comprehend what it can do and can't do, and therefore haven't managed it," McCoy said. "Most systems don't do all things that are promised, and you tend to remember failures and not successes. Some people say it's sort of a dark hole that they keep throwing money into, because they don't understand what can be done."

McCoy said Banc One spent 3 percent to 4 percent of pretax profit on research and development, including computer technology, and pronounced himself satisfied with that investment. "We are in a highly regulated industry, so if you're going to set yourself apart, you really have to take advantage of technology," he said.

Laberis of Computerworld said the survey also found "a clear need for chief information officers to strike a much better balance between business acumen and technological know-how." Asked to list skills most valued in information systems management, 44 percent of the chief executives cited "business sense, ability to understand objectives"; 47 percent cited "technical ability."

In historical terms, that balance is new, Laberis said. "In the age of mainframes, from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, the chief information officers were immersed in technology, spending 80 to 90 percent of their time on pure technology issues." As businesses became more global and competition heated up, the emphasis started changing. Senior executives started telling the vice presidents of information systems that they had to become more business-savvy.

That was fine when almost every company used an IBM mainframe, because the technology was relatively stable for 25 years, Laberis said. "Then along came the information conundrum, and the whole ground beneath these people shifted," Laberis said. "The universe changed, new technologies that replaced mainframes came into vogue, networking became the heart and soul of the information system."

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