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The Big Sleep

With the economy on the upswing, business managers look to revive IT projects. It's not always easy.

In the completely fictional Museum of Business Technology, the displays are amazing. Down one hall they’ve got a Quadricycle, down another the original Telex. One wing is devoted entirely to computers. There, Hollerith Desks, Apple 1s, and IBM 650s sit perched on ivory cubes, encased in acrylic panels, motionless and muted, forever frozen in time.

Back in the real world, Kim Autrey says he knows a little something about technology behind glass. Three years ago, Autrey, vice president of business systems for Orlando-based CNL Restaurant Capital, a subsidiary of CNL Restaurant Properties Inc., had just developed a bold new tech plan for the company. At the core of the plan: build a data warehouse that would help CNL, a restaurant-industry financing provider, operate more productively and efficiently. The project was well received by Autrey’s bosses, who gave it the green light.

But then, in 2002, Autrey’s plan abruptly came to a halt. With the restaurant business still in the doldrums, and with other projects at the company being moved up, CNL management decided to suspend the project. “The priorities changed,” says Autrey.

Such a rethink is not uncommon. Over the past few years, thousands of corporate IT projects—including those once thought vital to ongoing business success—have been relegated to some high shelf, victims of laggardly revenues and a lingering recession. Tech budgets, ramped up by so many companies during the go-go days of the late 1990s, were reined in. Indeed, Gartner Dataquest says global corporate spending on software and hardware actually dropped from 2001 to 2003—a rare occurrence (see “Once More With Feeling” at the end of this article).

With corporate revenues now improving (and with IT budgets plumped up), a growing number of companies are looking to revisit old proposals. Some are finding, however, that jump-starting a stalled project can be a complicated affair. “You can’t just gas and go,” says Rick Brenner, a principal at Chaco Canyon Consulting, a Boston-based company that provides project-consulting services. “You can almost never resume a project from where you left off.”

Mash Unit

Consultants often advise corporate clients to appoint a team leader to assess the difficult work ahead. “You need one person who can conduct a project triage,” asserts Troy Edgar, CEO of Global Conductor, a Los Alamitos, Calif.-based management consulting firm that helps large companies implement and integrate projects. “This person can then lead a group of people to finding the right answers.”

It’s not surprising that a worker with experience restarting stalled projects makes the best choice for the job. “You may find someone like this inside,” says Brenner, “but it’s unlikely.” Why? Some industry watchers point out that tech workers with good project skills often command high salaries—exactly the kind of salaries employers have been eager to dump in recent years.

Occasionally, businesses turn to project-consulting firms to revive old initiatives. Many companies, though, eventually hand the keys back to the employee who first ran the program. A smart move, particularly if the worker has continued to champion the project during the big sleep. At CNL, Autrey says he never lost faith in his data-warehouse proposal. “I didn’t want to let it die,” he says frankly.

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