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Making Business and Tech One

Imagine showing up for work one morning and discovering that the computer that had been on your desk isn't there. Nor is a computer on any other desk. No e-mail. No Internet connection. None of the documents you were working on yesterday.

Could you do your job?

Now imagine that all the systems running your company are gone. No electronic connections to your suppliers. No Web interface for your customers. Nothing to calculate and print your paycheck!

How long would your company survive?

The fact is, information technology is now so imbedded in business that there's no business without it. For this reason, I've taken to calling it "business technology." At many companies, it currently accounts for more than half of capital spending. Simply put, business and technology have converged.

BEYOND ALIGNMENT. What hasn't converged, however, is the management of this technology. Despite their best intentions, business and IT executives at many companies still aren't singing from the same page of the hymnal. And so we get multimillion-dollar implementation blowups, lots of shelfware, chief information officers (CIOs) who take the blame and move on prematurely, companies operating below their potential, and companies taking a hit in the stock market when word of a technology failure gets out.

Efforts to remedy this have been labeled "alignment," and have been the subject of countless all-day meetings, articles, and conferences. Alignment means that the IT shop is giving the business side what it says it needs to run the business.

At the same time, a small handful of companies have moved beyond alignment to convergence in their management of technology. They're pursuing the principles of business technology management, or BTM, an emerging management science dedicated to managing business and technology together, thus eliminating the divide between business and IT.

BLENDING ROLES. While each of these converged companies is different -- and while there's no hard-and-fast definition of convergence -- a characteristic shared by all is that the same executives running the business are also running the technology.

Take Royal Boskalis Westminster, the international dredging company based in Papendrecht, The Netherlands. When P.A.M. Berdowski joined in 1997, he was named chief operating officer and CIO, a novel blending of roles. To grow, the company needed to reengineer its business model, and that meant reengineering its IT operations.

His dual role "was essential to the changes we needed to make," Berdowski told me when I met with him. "If we really want to achieve 20% growth in the next five years, technology becomes a strategic issue."

NEW FACE OF BUSINESS. Or consider Schneider National, the big trucking company headquartered in Green Bay, Wis. Business technology is at the core of its operations. Each of its drivers has a terminal in the cab for two-way communications with headquarters. Each of its 48,000 trailers has a satellite tracking device -- the company knows, within 50 feet, where each trailer is. All this feeds a computer system that generates 10,000 load assignments daily.

Even more interesting: Chief Executive Christopher Lofgren was formerly Schneider's CIO, as was Steve Matheys, now the executive vice-president for sales and marketing. Technology discussions come to the management team unfiltered, allowing for business-oriented discussions on opportunities to use technology to change Schneider's approach to the marketplace. This has given it a marketplace edge: It's the largest truckload carrier in the U.S.

Is this the new face of business? The success of these companies would suggest so. Take a good look at the computer on your desk. Imagine everything it's connected to. Think of all the systems that make your company go. Are the people managing it all really working together?

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