by John Edwards

7 low-cost, high-impact IT initiatives you can launch today

Jun 23, 2020
BudgetingDigital TransformationIT Leadership

Launching an impactful project doesn't have to break your budget. Here are seven performance-boosting initiatives to push your organization forward — even in lean times.

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Transformation is the key to enterprise success. But for organizations pressed for budget to perform necessary replacements and upgrades, Big Bang transformation initiatives are out of reach.

But advances can still be made, as there are many dynamic IT initiatives that can be launched at a relatively modest cost yet still deliver rapid, meaningful benefits.

If your organization is in need of a jumpstart without breaking the bank, here are seven ideas that can lead to sizable wins on a shoestring.

1. Dive into data analytics

Highly-skilled data scientists are hard to find and, when hired, command premium salaries. Fortunately, a low-cost, first-step entry into the world of business analytics is possible with AutoML tools. By automating the end-to-end process of applying machine learning to real-world problems, AutoML enables power business users with no formal data science expertise to build insightful models using high-quality diagnostic and predictive analytics tools.

“A lot of products and companies exist where they self-enclose this technology and make it portable or as a cloud service,” says Dokyun Lee, assistant professor of business analytics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “It’s quick, yet it can be revealing.”

Organizations that already have an established business intelligence (BI) system should evaluate their investments to determine how, and to what extent, business teams are using the technology.

“Many companies have invested considerably in data warehouse and BI capabilities … but appear to only be using a fraction of the capabilities,” notes Paul Rohmeyer, an associate teaching professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. “This project would improve the value realized from BI investments.”

2. Reassess IT processes

IT process assessments can help identify core inefficiencies in current procedures. A low-cost, low-tech initiative with a potentially large payback, an IT process assessment can pay big dividends by revealing potential IT process improvement opportunities.

To succeed in streamlining operations, an IT process assessment should both expose and mitigate inefficiencies. “As people do things — whatever they are — make a note of each step,” advises Roy Atkinson, group principal analyst for HDI Research. “Afterwards, assess which steps are absolutely necessary, and which are extraneous or could be done in a simpler way.”

Many IT processes emerge organically over time, without any forethought to efficiency. “We go through a process almost without thinking, or just because someone told us to do it that way,” Atkinson explains. If existing processes are reexamined logically, shortcuts and streamlining options will suddenly appear. “I was once involved in an IT project that cut one procedure from 37 steps to six,” he recalls, “just because we thought about what we were doing.”

3. Develop employee security training that actually works

Most cyberattacks and data breaches can be traced back to simple human errors. Educating employees on how to recognize and address threats arriving through email, social media and other channels will reinforce existing security measures at relatively little cost. “Your staff and employees are not the weak link; they’re the first line of defense in your IT network security,” says Chelsea Brown, an independent security advisor.

Unfortunately, many enterprise security education initiatives bewilder non-technical employees, who often fail to fully comprehend the meanings hidden within complex terms and instructions. “Training your employees to have privacy and security be a natural and comfortable choice not only increases your enterprise security overall, but it will allow employees to adapt better to security changes and implementations in the future,” Brown explains.

Achieving these goals requires a fresh approach to security training. “When security and privacy practices become natural and a part of everyday lives, it’s easy to transition into more in-depth processes, like securing remote work environments,” Brown says.

Developing an employee security strategy that actually works is easy and inexpensive compared to most technology-oriented security initiatives. Brown recommends a one-on-one instruction approach, teaming each employee with a knowledgeable co-worker or other expert who can provide friendly, understandable advice, answer questions and provide support when necessary. “Such training is more effective than simply sending a memo, watching a video or even attending a seminar,” she advises.

4. Launch a business satisfaction initiative

Implementing a process to regularly measure and assess enterprise satisfaction with IT services is a low-cost, high-reward initiative that many IT leaders overlook, says Carlene McCubbin, an Info-Tech Research Group research director focusing on CIOs and leadership.

“If you don’t have a clear understanding of the needs of your stakeholders, you’re flying blind​,” she warns. McCubbin notes that even before the pandemic, 74 percent of C-suite executives surveyed by her firm reported that they believe there’s room for improvement in how IT measures business satisfaction​.

Assessing IT satisfaction generally leads to almost immediate positive results. “When you measure business satisfaction, the data shows that you will start to drastically outperform your peers [at other enterprises],” McCubbins says. “For example, Ken Platt, CTO at Learning Resources, an educational toys and learning firm, saw an increase of his executive team’s IT satisfaction by 18 percent over three years,” she notes.

Carefully-designed internal surveys and polls can help IT gain insights into what business users really need. “The key to success is leveraging relevant data to go from ‘I think’ to ‘I know’ and, ultimately, to be able to inform strategies and demonstrate how you are acting upon the feedback,” McCubbin explains.

5. Consider low-code development

Low-code development platforms (LCDPs) apply a visually-oriented approach to application development. The low-code approach enables developers at various skill levels to create web and mobile applications using drag-and-drop components and a model-driven logic via a graphical user interface. “Gartner describes LCDP as a means to democratize application development by allowing organizations to replace application development in Java or .NET, yet still offers more customization than commercial off-the-shelf or SaaS applications,” explains Aflal Asker, a consultant with management consulting firm The DMW Group.

An LCDP platform, such as Microsoft Power Apps or OutSystems, can be used to solve impactful business problems, Asker says. “With the right use cases, a low-code development platform could accelerate application development and help organizations on their digital journey,” he states.

The approach offers several other important benefits. “LCDP significantly shortens the software development lifecycle when compared with hand-coding for common use cases,” Asker says, adding that some platforms “ensure that when applications are created they are not only fluid in desktops but are also presented well in mobile screens, ensuring the user experience is rich and consistent regardless of the device.” Additionally, subscription licensing options, offered by several vendors, can minimize upfront costs, he adds.

6. Commit to the cloud

Moving to the cloud means paying for services only as they are used and having the flexibility to scale on demand.

“New solutions deployed using on-premises infrastructure must be planned for, ordered, shipped, set up, tested and deployed both on the infrastructure and the solution side where there are often delays,” says Sherry Thompson, vice president of the global cloud practice at business and technology consulting firm HGS Digital. A cloud service provides resources on demand in a pay-as-you-go model.

“This offers access to infrastructure services in real-time and reduces deployment times from weeks or months down to just hours or days,” she explains. “Furthermore, cloud solutions enable you to shift your CapEx spend to an OpEx spend for more predictable spending.”

7. Streamline tedious tasks with RPA

The odd thing about robotic process automation (RPA) is that the technology actually uses no physical robots. Instead the technology configures software to operate like a robot, emulating the actions of a human interacting with digital systems to execute a business process. In real-world practice, RPA software is used to partially or fully automate human activities that are manual, rules-based and repetitive.

An RPA software robot never sleeps and makes no mistakes. For most enterprises, especially in the financial services and healthcare industries, RPA stands out as the best low-cost IT initiative, says Kyle Hutchins, a senior director in the technology practice of management and technology consulting firm West Monroe. “RPA software has matured in its capabilities and plenty of vendor options exist with favorable licensing structures to get value for less than a $50,000 investment,” he notes.

RPA is particularly effective in delivering value to back-office operations, where tasks tend to be manual, tedious, error-prone and high-volume. “For example, verification of deposits for a financial institution, or contract comparison and validation for an insurance company,” Hutchins explains. ROI’s value depends on its use case, but it’s not uncommon to see an over 100 percent ROI, largely generated by enabling staff to put aside mundane tasks and focus on complex, customer-facing activities, he says. “We often see RPA as a tactical, impactful way to start to digitally transform your business.”

A final suggestion

Prioritize revenue-focused initiatives — projects focused on sales and customer support, for example. “Such initiatives aren’t necessarily low-cost, but every dollar spent is focused on maintaining revenue to protect share and generating revenue to gain share,” advises John Tweardy, principal and technology strategy and business transformation leader for Deloitte Consulting.

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