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IT Consultants Get Back to Basics

BOSTON -- In the late 1990s, systems integrators/consultants had more big-ticket, multi-year projects than they could handle. Companies of all sizes and in all sectors rushed to establish a Web presence, implement e-commerce systems and safeguard data from Y2K mayhem.

In many cases, the impetus behind jobs could be distilled to "keeping up with the Joneses." And with venture capitalists raising and dispersing billion-dollar funds and Nasdaq IPOs breaking records every week, money was not a issue.

We all know what happened.

But even though the blank check days over, the economic downturn is forcing consultants and their customers to reassess their IT needs and their relationship yielding some positive results for both.

"It's put us on the same side of the desk," Peter Dupre, chief technologist at Edgewater Technology, said at a panel discussion organized by the Massachusetts Interactive Media Council this morning.

Not that the two sides had an adversarial relationship before, however, the new business realities require consultant and client to take a harder at IT priorities and budgets.

Other changes are evident as well. Return-on-investment (ROI) is a more important part of job than ever, and the pay back needs to happen sooner for projects to get the green light.

In addition, companies are asking their consultants to back up their predictions.

"We are seeing a lot more customers propose incentive-based contracts," said Alan Wexler, vice president and managing director, technology and communications business unit, for Sapient . "They want us to have skin in the game."

As for the types of technologies implemented, consultants said several including wireless and Web services have the potential to cause an uptick in business, but what cash-strapped firms are really looking for is a more holistic overview of how to maximize the IT systems they have, while adding key new technologies to improve efficiency.

Such installations, can only meet the stated goals if they are part of an overall plan, said Chuck Carney, managing principal of strategy and change consulting at IBM Global Services. Without training key personnel, who are used to a legacy system, the new equipment can't achieve its full potential.

Carney said the buying process has also changed, with control shifting from the CIO's office to the CFO or CEO.

Projects are also broken down into small increments, giving companies a chance to assess progress and the relationship with the consultants. For panelists, the goal is to be responsive to their clients needs in hopes of winning the next phase of the project.

"Buyers absolutely understand that today is their day," said Neal Prescott, managing director at Answerthink. "The pressure is on all of us not only to perform but to have excellent service."