An IBM survey has found that CEOs feel that their companies are slow in responding to organisational challenges, including new ways to take advantage of technology.

So what are CEOs doing about it? According to CIO: “Sixty-nine per cent say they are making extensive changes to their company’s business models. Many of these changes will capitalise on virtual technologies and real-time feedback.”

That’s a good start. But it’s only a start. As I see it, addressing these issues is also a matter of making better use of methodologies and tools that are out there for collaboration and innovation. It’s about making IT and business teams work better together, in a more agile way.

Indeed, virtualisation can and should be a big part of that process. Fiat's CEO Sergio Marchionne hit the headlines for leading the company through an “astonishing recovery”, with the car firm making a record trading profit of €3.2bn (£2.5bn, 66 per cent up on 2006) while eliminating its net industrial debt.

How did Marchionne do it? According to The Economist: “He demands complete openness, fast communication, accountability; he abhors corporate politics and hierarchy.” He flattened out the company’s structure and got individual teams working together.

The second thing he did was to boost development speed by making teams more agile. In designing its Bravo and 500 models, Fiat relied entirely on computer simulations. “With virtual engineering, we can test and validate hundreds of solutions and configurations – much more than we could with [physical] prototypes,” said Fiat’s head of engineering, Harold Wester. Fiat cut the time from final design to production from 26 months to 18, gaining a critical competitive advantage.

Fiat’s recipe for innovation was equal parts collaboration, agility and virtualisation. So what ingredients – tools and methodologies, that is – should CIOs be thinking about if they aren’t already?

Let’s start with collaboration. At one end, there’s Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. At Conchango, we’ve been helping clients take advantage of its integration of workspaces, forums, blogs, RSS and wikis since its beta phase.

It enables core document management, major and minor versioning, rich descriptive metadata, workflow, content type-based policies, auditing, and role-based-access controls at a range of levels. Add to that enhanced authoring, business document processing, web content management and publishing, records management, policy management, and support for multilingual publishing and you’ve got a dynamic collaboration toolkit.

We’re also seeing Google’s first true foray into enterprise collaboration. Can Google Apps Team Edition become robust enough to steal market share from the major players? For a certain type of team, it might, once Google has addressed issues around security and control.

A browser-based collaboration solution like Google Apps leads us nicely into the next ingredient: virtualisation.

Most organisations start out looking to virtualisation for server consolidation and containment, disaster recovery and business continuity, and enterprise-hosted desktops; many then branch out until virtualisation becomes a standard part of the production datacentre infrastructure. And once the idea takes hold in the datacentre, it spreads round the company until, as at Fiat, it takes on a whole new life through all kinds of applications.

VMWare is probably the leader in server virtualisation – it’s the most mature solution and the company knows that manageability is key. It’s currently beta testing the Virtual Infrastructure Toolkit for Windows, which lets administrators automate several management processes for virtual environments.

Microsoft’s Hyper-V is also attracting a lot of attention, promising to improve the utilisation rates and cost-effectiveness of organisations’ commodity server estates.

Our last crucial ingredient is agility. You’ll be familiar with Agile as an approach to software development. Much has already been written about the methodology and its many strengths, but what I find most interesting about Agile is how its principles can be applied outside the realm of traditional software projects.

It starts with common sense. Agile minimises planning at the outset, taking a more fluid approach and allowing for planning at each stage of a project’s development. By constantly testing and integrating the results at each stage, the final product can be released earlier if it’s ready, or changes can be made that will enable an implementation that’s both rapid and successful.

Combining that type of thinking with the right tools for collaboration and virtualisation, CIOs can help their CEOs, and thus their organisations as a whole, weather the coming storm.

About the author

Mike Altendorf is founder and joint MD of Conchango, a consultancy that recently agreed a £42m sale to EMC

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