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Emerging Enterprise: Strategic IT

What does a $70 million freight company that ships fresh and frozen seafood have in common with the small, privately owned video-game developer that created the Sony PlayStation hits Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank and Disruptor? Only this: Both regard the IT department as a strategic resource to drive new business, better serve customers and boost operational efficiency.

Unfortunately, not every emerging enterprise shares that view. In a recent survey of 429 businesses-technology executives at small and midsize companies conducted by Network Computing and InformationWeek, only a third of respondents say IT plays a part in most critical business decisions. Another third say IT gets involved in business initiatives only after critical decisions are made. The remaining third admit they don't get even that far--they're seen primarily as a service provider that keeps network gear running, servers patched and executives' BlackBerrys alive.

In a globally competitive environment, can smaller companies afford not to give their IT leadership a voice in business initiatives? Smart execs know the answer is no. "The owners aren't dumb--they know IT can contribute to the business," says John Walker, software development manager at H&M Bay, the Federalsburg, Md., company that coordinates independent truckers to pick up and deliver seafood. The system that directs driver pickups is "the glue between our customers and the trucking companies we use. Technology is the only way to improve business processes."

At Insomniac Games, a working partnership between IT and business executives has had tangible results. Until recently, the PlayStation video-game developer with 160 employees--just four of them IT staffers--had artists twiddling their thumbs for a couple of hours to an entire day as their PCs rendered background scenes for video games. Because the process consumed all their PCs' CPU cycles, artists could do nothing but wait.

"It was literally a case of starting a render and walking away," says IT director Steve Kirk. Because he is involved in the business' strategic direction and long-term projects, Kirk keeps a sharp eye on the horizon, anticipating the company's needs as gaming technology advances. He knew the company's rendering system couldn't handle projects designed for Sony's PlayStation 3, which is scheduled to debut this year. "We wouldn't have been able to make our deadlines," he says.

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