While the weak economy has derailed many an IT project, successful businesses never lose sight of the investments they must make to stay competitive. Technology-enabled innovation during hard times has to pay off fast, of course, but the most prescient projects produce dividends far beyond the next quarter.\n\nOur 2009 CIO 100 honorees understand how to balance quick gains with long-term strategic advantage. Whether their winning projects address customer needs, internal collaboration or cost-containment\u2014three dominant themes among this year's applicants\u2014each was conceived to create new value, not simply allow the company to hold \nits ground.\n\n"We understand where our intellectual property is," says Mark Carbrey, senior vice president and CIO with Cross Country Automotive. That is, technology that directly impacts the customer experience. The provider of roadside assistance, accident management and connected vehicle solutions deployed a business intelligence system that enables real-time work assignments, performance reporting and claims submission for its network of service providers delivering greater satisfaction for their customers.\n\nSince deploying the system, customer satisfaction with Cross Country Automotive has experienced an 80-point increase. That's no accident. Carbrey cemented support for the project among clients by showing them prototypes during the development phase. They gave him more specific, targeted feedback than he ever expected about how they wanted to use the new tools, which Carbrey's team was able to incorporate into the finished system.\nRead more about the 2009 CIO 100 honorees here.\nCreating Core Value\n\nLike Cross Country Automotive, other CIO 100 honorees focused squarely on core business needs, whether generating new sources of revenue (as did retailer Best Buy with its bar-code enabled software subscription service) or creating greater efficiencies (as did Array BioPharma with software repurposed from the military to integrate data from clinical drug trials).\n\nAt Bethany Christian Services (see "Big Ideas on a Shoestring"), for example, the IT team rolled out a Web-based Adoption Management System (AMS) to 77 locations in 32 states. "This is such a core application and foundational project that the support remained consistent from start to finish," says CIO Gary Kuyper. The nonprofit business helps place children with adoptive families, counsels pregnant women, provides foster care, family counseling and family preservation. Staff and clients needed a better way to collaborate during the adoption process by sharing forms and correspondence. "The process of doing social work is to track everything, like e-mail, case notes, phone calls, letters and any communications between workers, family and country or the birth family," says Kuyper.\n\nAMS defines the workflow required to process adoptions and includes a document management system that collects information pertaining to each client's case. "Our national adoption director really rallied around the system and \nhas used it to create even more common practices, down to the form and specific letter content," Kuyper adds. Because the system is accessible online, staff can access it anywhere, and the new ability to track case details helps Bethany Christian Services pass muster with regulators in the United States and internationally.\n\nKuyper's personal experience\u2014he and his wife have adopted three of their eight children\u2014also informed the project. "The [function] I like the most is the family portal for communication," he says. "[We] have a couple of offices that are using it very effectively, and customers are noticing and commenting in satisfaction surveys."\n\nAnother CIO winner\u00ad, Old Dominion Freight Line, applied wireless technology to improve the productivity of its forklift operators. A device on the forklift captures data about each pallet and delivers it to the driver and the supervisor via a dashboard. With access to special handling instructions and suggestions for where to load the freight, Old Dominion makes fewer errors. A dashboard for managers shows when problems arise.\n\n"Labor to revenue is a big number in transportation," says VP of IT Ken Erdner. "It says how much freight you're moving per dollar spent on labor." To date, the company's annual return is nearly double what Erdner invested in the project. "For [it] to continue doing well in this economy, with pricing so difficult, that's really a wonderful thing," he says.\n\nBeyond ROI\n\nSometimes innovation takes an unexpected turn, producing some surprising benefits. Erdner wasn't counting on customers filing fewer claims for damaged freight, but claims have dropped. "The freight was handled less, which means less chance of damage," he notes.\n\nAnother example: Scotiabank's branch infrastructure refresh was an "operational necessity," says Kimberlee McKenzie, executive vice president for information technology and solutions. Replacing equipment and local area networks in 1,150 locations across Canada is saving $1.2 million annually. More up-to-date equipment will enable the bank to accommodate nearly $2 million in additional business over the next five years through increased sales capacity.\n\nBut the project also provided Scotiabank with a new blueprint for managing future large technology rollouts in the 50 countries where it operates. McKenzie's project team mapped out the refresh process for each branch in a handbook it distributed. The package included a camera that the local staff used to photograph its space. The IT team used those images, along with floor schematics, to adjust installation plans remotely, reducing the need for on-site inspections. The project came in at $4 million under budget.\n\nNext up is a similar project in the Caribbean region. "We have 24 countries involved, and we will be managing it from Toronto," McKenzie says. "It'll be like what we did in Canada, times 24."\n\nFinally, there are the projects that not only deliver outstanding business value, but also open end-users' eyes to technology's potential. UniGroup's initiative to automate its forms gave business leaders "a taste for more automation," says CIO Randall Poppell. The company, which owns United Van Lines, Mayflower Transit and other subsidiaries, is part of an industry that still pushes plenty of paper. The system is saving $400,000 annually and helps avoid $1.5 million in potential regulatory fines (owed for not using approved forms).\n\nIt's also delighted a hard-to-please constituency\u2014the company's lawyers. "It really surprised them, the ease with which they could make changes," he says. "That was one of the big benefits going in. That exceeded their expectations."\n\nNot only can the legal department update forms quickly when regulatory requirements change (thus ensuring compliance), but the company can deliver order information more quickly to agents, drivers, customers and the billing department. UniGroup's insurance subsidiary, Vanliner, is now looking at adopting the application for its forms, as well.\n\n"Probably the biggest surprise came from how well it was received and the opportunities the other business units saw to exploit it," says Poppell.\n\nIn other words, the value of an investment can be measured not just by what it delivers, but by what it enables.\n\nDo you Tweet? Follow everything from CIO Magazine on twitter @CIOMagazine.