Planning Greener IT Pastures

Mar 31, 2006

Liz Roop

When establishing greenfield operations, a short-term perspective on planning the IT infrastructure may address immediate needs, but it can also set the stage for future problems.

“The competitive business environment today requires companies to have a very clear vision, from both a strategic perspective as well as from an IT perspective. The more aligned a company’s IT infrastructures and IT priorities are to its business and strategic priorities, the better positioned it is to respond quickly to changes in the market, said Jocelyn Young, research director with Datamonitor.

“This type of business agility is crucial for companies to be able to respond to market changes such as encroaching competitors and unforeseen challenges such as natural or manmade disasters.”

In other words, decisions governing the start-up IT infrastructure can have a long-term impact on the success or failure of the operation for years to come.

Planning Ahead

By viewing initial IT infrastructure acquisition as a business investment and mapping business objectives to long-term technology planning, companies can improve communications, streamline business processes and provide secure communications to employees, customers and partners, according to a recent white paper from IDC.

That paper makes the case that most successful companies acquire and implement IT infrastructure for expansion operations in phases rather than through massive and expensive upgrades. Taking an orderly, incremental approach allows for planned growth that maps an IT infrastructure evolution to long-term business goals.

The days of investing in technology simply for the sake of investing in the latest and greatest gadgets and functionality are long gone; technology should be an enabler of a company’s business objectives and processes, said Young.

“New companies have the advantage of not having significant numbers of legacy systems or processes, so they should be in a favorable position to start from scratch and align their IT infrastructures with their strategic business goals from the beginning,” she said.

The influence initial IT infrastructure planning has on the long-term viability of an organization doesn’t just apply to competitive positioning of commercial operations. In some cases, IT decisions made at the outset can ultimately impact how well any organization achieves long-term goals that reach beyond individual operations.

Case in point: Regional Health Information Organizations (RHIOs), community-based organizations for patient data-sharing that are expected to become the building blocks for the much-anticipated national health information network.

A key challenge for RHIOs is balancing the immediate needs of the communities they are established to serve with their over-arching mission to link together and form the foundation for the national network.

According to David Clark, director of Integration and Interoperability issues for the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), it’s difficult to determine the extent to which the estimated 300 RHIOs operating today are making technology decisions based on their future ability to link with other organizations.

“Since RHIOs currently take many forms with varying technical infrastructures, it is difficult to tell which RHIOs are effectively planning for the future,” he said. “Several are taking a service oriented architecture approach which will allow for rapid expansion when the market is ready. From what I have gathered from the market, most are working diligently to get the local business and technical infrastructure set up. Connecting to other RHIOs or a (national network) will be the next issues they face and the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology RFP will need to be completed before RHIOs will know exactly how they will connect to one another.”

Not knowing exactly how they will link up in the future is no excuse for not planning for the eventuality, however. According to “Accelerating Transformation Through Health Information Technology” by the Center for Heath Transformation, today’s RHIOs may be based on a wide range of business models, but they all share a need to address technical issues to ensure that participants can efficiently and effectively transfer electronic data, and to ensure interoperability and communications between the disparate systems of public and private healthcare providers.

In fact, the CHI report indicates that interoperability is the most complex and most important requirement in the formation of a RHIO, given the goal of supporting a national infrastructure for health information exchange.

“In my opinion, it is very important for RHIOs to consider both inter- and intra-RHIO communications when making technology decisions," agreed Clark. "Open standards, open architectures and non-proprietary solutions based on open source compatible technologies will be the most flexible and help avoid unneeded future investments.”

One RHIO that is already reaping the rewards of adopting a long-term perspective to its IT planning from the outset is the Utah Health Information Network (UHIN), which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as the first successful RHIO.

UHIN connects all of Utah’s hospitals, laboratories, local health centers and mental health centers with platform-independent software architecture and tools that allow providers and payers to exchange information.

Supporting UHIN is a suite of software products developed by HealthCare Transaction Processors, Inc. (HTP) that work together to connect all members of a RHIO community into a functioning network.

According to HTP’s co-founder and CTO, Fred Richards, an open architecture is critical to a RHIO’s future ability to link into a national network.

For now, a homogeneous approach will work to bring a few organizations together to exchange information, “but that model won’t support expansion to a larger scale,” he said. “We’re making our system as open as possible so that, as a platform, it becomes architecture-independent. It’s a better approach. If you don’t have an open set of standards that allows everybody to inter-communicate, then everyone can’t participate in the RHIO.”

What's Good for the Goose …

These considerations cut across industries. According to IDC, successful IT infrastructure planning involves connecting the technology “road map” to business planning by answering the question: How is the company planning to evolve over time?

The answer to this question will highlight the key technology areas that require critical foundation work.

Other considerations include:

  • New technologies that can or should be incorporated; even if there are none at the present, it is beneficial to plan now for future integration.
  • Emerging firms that might siphon off existing business and what, if any, technological advantages those organizations may have that should be addressed in future funding.
  • Advanced capabilities that will support business objectives, including customer service capabilities like call centers or online services, new resources that will support a remote workforce and technology tools that will boost efficiency and productivity.
  • The ability of the initial infrastructure to support new technology in the future, such as advanced security, wireless or VoIP.
  • Finally, says Datamonitor’s Young, it’s important to recognize that while it’s impossible to fully anticipate future IT needs, taking a long-term strategic approach from the outset will better-position an organization to plan for the unexpected.

    “It’s very important for companies to inform their short-term technology decisions with a longer-term strategic vision,” she said. “Granted, there are a number of ‘moving targets,’ such as emerging technologies or convergence of technologies, that make it difficult for companies to fully anticipate their future IT needs. But companies that have clearly articulated policies and procedures in place show a certain type of resilience in handling these unexpected challenges.”


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