Looking to effectively manage your next information technology project? Just ask those in your firm to segregate business activities into two areas: those that differentiate you from the market, and those where you're at parity. At Tech+, the American Institute of CPAs' annual technology and information conference, Niel Nickolaisen, chief information officer and director of internal audit at Headwaters Inc., an energy and building products firm in South Jordan, Utah, gave away his secret to making IT projects work: Invest in what differentiates your firm from others in your market, but don't re-invent the wheel on those "mission-critical" parities. Nickolaisen believes that just because you're good at something doesn't mean it differentiates you from your competitor. The challenge for businesses is to distinguish what you're good at and what makes you special in your market, he advised. Once you discover that, invest resources into nurturing that source. He described his strategy as "a model I developed after managing large failed IT projects," he said. "We do not design parity activities. We mimic best practices and are creative in differentiating activities." In other words, ask tough questions of your staff about what sets your firm apart and gains you market share, as opposed to those elements in your business that you are good at by best practice standards. Teasing out these answers can help a business create a decision filter that helps build a strategy, Nickolaisen said. When a parity is discovered, it's a primary opportunity for streamlining within a firm or company, he said, adding that most workflow automation is an example of parity, According to Nickolaisen, 40 percent of software licenses are never deployed, with a current success rate of roughly 35 percent. IT has changed, he said. Customers previously had static needs, and personnel was out of sight, out of mind. "Not anymore," he explained. "IT can and does support every known business process, and IT personnel are highly visible. We're involved now."

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