Why 2015 Was a Breakthrough Year in Artificial Intelligence

After a half-decade of quiet breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, 2015 has been a landmark year. Computers are smarter and learning faster than ever.
The pace of advancement in AI is “actually speeding up,” said Jeff Dean, a senior fellow at Google. To celebrate their achievements and plot the year ahead, Dean and many of the other top minds in AI are convening in Montreal this week at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference. It started in 1987 and has become a must-attend event for many Silicon Valley companies in the last few years, thanks to the explosion in AI. NIPS was where Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg chose in 2013 to announce the company’s plans to form an AI laboratory and where a startup named DeepMind showed off an AI that could learn to play computer games before it was acquired by Google.

There should be plenty to discuss this week. The unprecedented advancements in AI research this year can be attributed to a confluence of nerdy factors. For one, cloud computing infrastructure is vastly more powerful and affordable, with the ability to process complex information. There are also more plentiful datasets and free or inexpensive software development tools for researchers to work with. Thanks to this, a crucial class of learning technology, known as neural networks, have gone from being prohibitively expensive to relatively cheap.
That’s led to rapid uptake by the tech industry’s largest companies, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Each operates its own AI lab that conducts important research in the field and publishes much of it for the academic community to build upon. This year, Google researchers nabbed the cover of scientific journal Nature with a system that can learn to play and master old Atari games without directions. Facebook built a way to let computers describe images to blind people; Microsoft showed off a new Skype system that can automatically translate from one language to another; and IBM singled out AI as one of its greatest potential growth areas.
Startups are also contributing meaningfully to AI. Preferred Networks is making AI systems that will go into industrial robots made by Japan’s Fanuc, and Indico Data Labs worked with a Facebook researcher to teach a computer how to paint faces using its own sort of imagination.
For a look at how far computer intelligence has come this year, here are six charts that should give you a clearer picture.

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Computers have become a lot better at figuring out what’s in a photo. In 2012, a team of University of Toronto researchers won the world’s top image-recognition competition. The entire team was eventually recruited by Google, and its approach was quickly adopted by the company and its peers. In 2015, AI systems based on the project’s approach, which relies on a technique called deep learning, have become much more accurate. In tests, error rates are down to less than 5 percent, making them better than some humans’ performances.

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Lots of companies are embracing AI, perhaps none more than Google. The Internet giant went from sporadic usage of deep learning in 2012 to applying it to thousands of projects this year.

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5Startups are adopting AI in big ways, too. CrowdFlower, which supplies structured data to companies, said it has seen a dramatic uptick in the amount of data being requested by businesses to help them conduct AI research. DiffBot, another startup, is using AI to improve its automated data-scraping tools.

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A main focus of AI research is in teaching computers to think for themselves and improvise solutions to common problems. One way to do that is to give them a slimmed-down version of the real world, such as the simplified environments presented in video games, then ask them to explore it and record the results. (Check out the chart above for a look at how far Google’s Atari project has come since 2013.) But the potential goes beyond games: Similar software could be used to teach things to AI computers and help them more quickly learn such new things as medical diagnostics, environmental science, or improved personal recommendations.
Google’s Dean likens recent advancements in AI capabilities to evolution. “We’re at this point in actual evolution where, previously, animals didn’t have eyes, and now they have eyes,” he said. “That’s going to change a lot of stuff. Computers used to not be able to see very well, and now they’re starting to open their eyes.”

Source: Bloomberg-Why 2015 Was a Breakthrough Year in Artificial Intelligence

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CIOs: Don’t fall prey to these 10 common mistakes

Today’s CIO faces a broad spectrum of challenges that require business acumen, tech savvy, and strong leadership skills. It’s a tricky balancing act, but knowing about the pitfalls can help.

CIOs run highly technical disciplines and usually come from technical backgrounds. Their strength is in knowing the details of IT work. This gains them respect in the eyes of their staff and enables them to discuss the details of projects. Nevertheless, IT management responsibilities have changed substantially over the past few years. As more IT processes become automated, CIOs must become more business-savvy. CIOs also need strong people, as well as good communication and other soft skills. In this new world, CIOs must embrace new roles. Here are 10 mistakes that can trip up the CIO.

1: Practicing heads-down management
Technical people are task-oriented. They have a natural tendency to get completely immersed in technical problem solving. There is no room for heads-down management in CIOs — yet many continue to focus on the technical aspects of projects, forgetting about the people and the politics that can completely disrupt work.

2: Staying technical
Great CIOs resist the temptation to get into the technical details of IT projects. They understand that it is their job to ensure that the politics and business environment are optimal for projects. They focus on running the necessary interference for their staff to make conditions for success optimal.

3: Not checking project status
It can be difficult for CIOs to get out of their office and onto the “IT floor.” I remember one CIO I worked for as a young staffer. He thought our project was meeting deadline, and the project manager was telling him so, but the project wasn’t close. This project ultimately failed — but it might have succeeded if the CIO had done enough “management by walking around.”

4: Forgetting to praise
IT’ers (and their leaders) are committed to what they do. For most, it is enough to know that a job is well done. Still, everyone appreciates a little praise or recognition. Many CIOs don’t give it often enough.

5: Not communicating clearly about projects
One of the hallmarks of great communicators is that they make an effort to know their audience. They then find ways to communicate by using familiar terms. Coming from technical disciplines that use jargon, many CIOs must acquire this skill.

6: Not knowing the business
Many IT’ers go through their entire careers without ever working in the end business. Consequently, they have to learn the business on their own to make sure that their efforts are aligned with what the business needs. CIOs know this, but some fail to hone their own business skills — which is critical for building credibility with other executives in the organization.

7: Forgetting to forge key relationships
Relationship building with other executives and business influencers in the company is one of the most important things a CIO can do. It establishes a cooperative foundation for IT initiatives and improves the odds of project success.

8: Not being objective in IT platform selection
There is plenty of risk in IT projects. This makes it easy for CIOs and other IT decision makers to fall back on vendors and platforms they already know, even though they might not be the best solutions for the projects they’re working on. Maintaining objectivity when evaluating technology alternatives helps CIOs keep their options open and approach projects creatively.

9: Failing to learn staff capabilities and limitations
Some IT’ers are experts in specific areas of IT, some are great with end business users, and some are journeymen who can succeed in numerous project roles. CIOs are ahead of the game when they get to know their staff members’ individual strengths and weaknesses. CIOs should be facilitating IT training to shore up any staff shortcomings. And they should know which staffers are their go-to players and rising stars.

10: Micromanaging
When projects go wrong, it’s tempting to step in and start running them yourself, especially if you’re in a smaller shop. But when CIOs do this, they neglect other projects and areas of IT that require their attention. A better strategy is to meet with project managers and help them get the project on track. As a last resort, you might need to replace a project manager — but it should be with someone else who can take the project — not you!

Other pitfalls?
What mistakes have you made (or seen other CIOs make) that created problems for IT and the business? Share your experiences with us.

Source: TechRepublic-CIOs: Don’t fall prey to these 10 common mistakes By Mary Shacklett

10 highly valued soft skills for IT pros

Today’s IT pro needs both technical expertise and soft skills — that’s nothing new. But the scope of those in-demand soft skills just keeps growing.

Depending on which company you talk to, there are varying demands for IT technical skills. But there is one common need that most IT organizations have: soft skills. This need is nothing new. As early as three decades ago corporate IT sought out liberal arts graduates to become business and systems analysts so they could “bridge the communications gap” between programmers and end users. And if you look at the ranks of CIOs, almost half have backgrounds in liberal arts.

So what are the soft skills areas that companies want to see in IT professionals today?

1: Deal making and meeting skills
IT is a matchup of technology and people to produce products that run the company’s business. When people get involved, there are bound to be disagreements and a need to arrive at group consensus. IT’ers who can work with people, find a common ground so projects and goals can be agreed to, and swallow their own egos in the process if need be are in high demand.

2: Great communication skills
The ability to read, write, and speak clearly and effectively will never go out of style — especially in IT. IT project annals are filled with failed projects that were good ideas but poorly communicated.

3: A sixth sense about projects
There are formal project management programs that teach people PM methodology. But for most people, it takes several years of project management experience to develop an instinct for how a project is really going. Natural project managers have this sixth sense. In many cases, it is simply a talent that can’t be taught. But when an IT executive discovers a natural project manager who can “read” the project in the people and the tasks, this person is worth his/her weight in gold.

4: Ergonomic sensitivity
Because its expertise is technical, it is difficult for IT to understand the point of view of a nontechnical user or the conditions in the field that end users face. A business analyst who can empathize with end users, understand the business conditions they work in, and design graphical user interfaces that are easy to learn and use is an asset in application development.

5: Great team player
It’s easy for enclaves of IT professionals to remain isolated in their areas of expertise. Individuals who can transcend these technical silos and work for the good of the team or the project are valued for their ability to see the big picture. They are also viewed as candidates for promotions.

6: Political smarts
Not known as a particularly politically astute group, IT benefits when it hires individuals who can forge strong relationships with different constituencies throughout the company. This relationship building facilitates project cooperation and success.

7: Teaching, mentoring, and knowledge sharing
IT’ers able to teach new applications to users are invaluable in project rollouts. They are also an asset as teaching resources for internal IT. If they can work side by side with others and provide mentoring and support, they become even more valuable — because the “real” IT learning occurs on the job and in the trenches. Central to these processes is the willingness to share and the ability to listen and be patient with others as they learn.

8: Resolving “gray” issues
IT likes to work in binary (black and white). Unfortunately, many of the people issues that plague projects are “gray.” There is no right or wrong answer, but there is a need to find a place that everyone is comfortable with. Those who can identify and articulate the problem, bring it out in the open, and get it solved are instrumental in shortening project snags and timelines.

9: Vendor management
Few IT or MA programs teach vendor management — and even fewer IT’ers want to do this. But with outsourcing and vendor management on the rise, IT pros with administrative and management skills who can work with vendors and ensure that SLAs (service level agreements) and KPIs (key performance indicators) are met bring value to performance areas where IT is accountable. They also have great promotion potential.

10: Contract negotiation
The growth of cloud-based solutions has increased the need for contract negotiation skills and legal knowledge. Individuals who bring this skills package to IT are both recognized and rewarded, often with highly paid executive positions.

Source: TechRepublic-10 highly valued soft skills for IT pros By Mary Shacklett

10 resolutions for better IT in 2016

As you take stock of the past year and look at the challenges that lie ahead, consider adding some of these goals to your IT-improvement list.

What if CIOs challenged themselves and their IT staff members to come up with 10 resolutions for the New Year? Here are some goals that might make the list.

1: Improve listening skills

Try as it might, IT is fundamentally an engineering discipline. IT’ers like to focus on things and on words that are spoken or written at face value. Sometimes, though, critical listening kicks in and benefits everyone when IT’ers can “hear between the lines,” whether it’s detecting someone’s frustration or catching the expression of a hidden wish that the system could do something better. Listening skills continue to be a developmental area for IT.

2: Don’t be arrogant

It’s easy to dismiss a non-IT person’s idea if it isn’t technically feasible, but sometimes there’s a useful gem buried in the suggestion. Even if there isn’t, patience and respect for others’ input can go a long way toward dispelling IT’s reputation for sometimes being arrogant and aloof.

3: Avoid using acronyms

Unless you’re surrounded by a group of techies who use acronyms day-in and day-out, it is a good idea to keep acronyms out of conversations. They get in the way of clear communications.

4: Kick the tires on new technologies

Despite the number of IT departments that say they are “leading edge,” more than 50% of IT work is spent on system maintenance. At the end of the day, there is very little budget or staff time left to explore new technologies that could be benefit the company in the future. Don’t let this stop you. There are plenty of vendors out there that would welcome giving you a test drive of what they’ve got to offer—and to show you how it could potentially pay off for your company—even if you’re not immediately planning to buy.

5: Develop a strategy for reducing system maintenance

Even though system maintenance consumes such a large amount of the average IT department’s time, few of them have an active strategy for it. Whether it’s outsourcing applications to the cloud, improving quality assurance so applications fail less, or assessing the breakage levels of applications and replacing high-breakage apps, IT departments need to get on top of this area so they can free more staff to work on new projects.

6: Implement green IT in asset management

IT has already attacked data center carbon footprints by reducing the numbers of physical servers and storage devices/cabinets, replacing them with virtual counterparts. But there’s still more to be done for green IT. A prime area is asset management, which uses software to track IT hardware and software assets both inside and outside the data center. If asset management software is implemented to track asset use—and then identifies assets that are barely or no longer being used—IT can redeploy these assets or get rid of them. Another asset management area is building facilities and office space, a major energy consumption and expense item for enterprises. Many companies have been successful at saving money and promoting corporate-wide green initiatives when they’ve used their IT asset management software to track facilities utilization.

7: Commit to staff training and development

The first area to go with budget cuts is IT staff training and development. But with the advent of so many new technologies and projects, IT can scarcely afford to endure learning curves on every mission-critical project. If necessary, the CIO should be talking to the board and the CEO about the importance of investing in key IT personnel by offering proactive technology education and career growth paths. This encourages the most valuable IT contributors to stay with the company for the long haul.

8: Employ end users in QA

Quality assurance is an oft-neglected area in IT. Its task is to check out applications for conformity to technical and functional requirements, but what is missing in the QA process is an app checkout that evaluates the application’s fit with the business process it’s being inserted into—as well as the user experience and user-friendliness of the application. The best people to do the user-oriented checkouts are the end users themselves. This also engages users actively in the process of testing a new application and helps ensure their buy-in to the app.

9: Update your DR plan

IT continues to place regularly testing and updating disaster recovery plans on the back burner, due to the many projects and user requests that constantly flood the IT workload. Nevertheless, those who have actually been through a disaster will attest that there is no document more singularly important than the DR plan when things go wrong. A poor disaster recovery effort can harm a company’s business reputation for the long term—and it can also affect the jobs and careers of those who were supposed to be in charge of assuring that the company could meet any disastrous circumstance it faced.

10: Revisit your data retention policies

The big data age has swamped enterprises with more data than ever before, but not all of it is useful. Although it can be among the most dreaded of tasks, make it a point to revisit corporate data retention policies with business units across the enterprise on an annual basis.

Source: Techrepublic-0 resolutions for better IT in 2016 By Mary Shacklett

6 tips to identify project management red flags

Robert Burns famously wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” and while he was addressing a mouse in his poem, his words sum up the day-to-day struggles of IT project managers. The key to successful project management is being able to not only to balance the “triple constraints” of time, resources and quality, but to identify red flags that could signal an impending project disaster.

“The most important thing to remember is that regardless of how well you plan, how much you build in contingencies for all the expected ways things could go sideways, something else, something you didn’t expect, will always happen. Something is always going to go wrong. If you can acknowledge and accept that, and then understand that sometimes these things aren’t in your control, you’re in a better position,” says Tushar Patel, senior vice president of marketing for project and portfolio management solutions company Innotas.

Red flag: focus on output rather than outcome
There are signs and signals, though, that can indicate when a project’s in trouble. One of the easiest to see is a focus on output rather than outcome, Patel says. Project managers must first determine what the desired outcome of a project is, and what value that project will bring to the business, and then make sure that all the steps along the way — the output — are contributing to that larger goal the organization wants to accomplish.

“PMs are supposed to look at output: project completion schedules, budgets, resources, but if you’re completely focused on those, you’ll miss the bigger picture of how your project fits into the larger business strategy. It’s like if you’re taking a road trip and, at the end you say, ‘Great! We only had one gas stop and one food stop, and we made fantastic time,’ except you ended up in Southern California when you were trying to get to Seattle,” he says.

Red flag: Focus on cost instead of value
Project managers bear the burden of proving to the larger business and the C-suite that they’re not just a cost center, but provide value to the organization, says Patel. An undue focus on IT project management as a major cost center is another red flag, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“You have to focus on showing your business leadership that the costs you’re incurring are directly in alignment with and furthering the business’ goals,” he says. Let’s for example, say you’re a project manager tasked with helping the company expand internationally and open an office in Brazil, then you have to first think of everything that entails: renting or purchasing office space; purchasing and deploying infrastructure, setting up internet connections, hiring talent and making connections with customers. Then, you need to draw direct correlations between what you’re spending and how that aligns with the business’ goals of succeeding in a new, international market.

“In this example, if your project goes over budget on infrastructure, you have to be able to argue that, say, shipping and deployment costs are higher in Brazil, or that you’re purchasing higher quality networking equipment so that you’re directly in line with the organization’s strategy,” he says. Proving that project management isn’t just a cost center but a critical, strategic value-add is incredibly important.

Red flag: Focus on process instead of people
Resource management is a key focus for project managers. Figuring out how to best allocate limited supplies of time, money and people can be the difference between project success or failure. But organizations that focus solely on the process and procedure instead of how effectively resources are being used is a major red flag, Patel says.

“Why do so many projects fail? Because they don’t have the right resources in place at the right time. Without the correct allocation of your people, you don’t have a project at all. That goes back to making sure you’re highlighting the value you bring to the organization, so you can say, ‘Look, I know you’re trying to take John Smith and move him to another project, but without John, X, Y and Z won’t happen on this, so I either need more money to hire someone else, or another person, or more time to get this done,'” Patel says.

This type of focus on the process and execution instead of on the people involved can often be traced to a deeper problem, says Chris Ward, an IT training professional with CBT Nuggets, Microsoft technology expert and former project manager. They don’t trust what their people are telling them.

“Projects are made of people and processes, and people can throw your processes off, but your processes also can screw up your people. Do you have the best people working for you? Then, no matter what the process says, you have to trust the people when they come to you with potential problems,” Ward says.

Red flag: Lack of clear communication
Clear and constant communication shouldn’t just happen when projects are going well, says Innotas’ Patel. That’s expected. Where project managers can really add value to an organization is when they can identify red flags and point them out to leadership before they become failures.

“You have to know how to highlight potential risks, how to communicate possible solutions, and when to bring in stakeholders to help you. If you don’t feel you can do this without fear of being blamed, without repercussions, that’s a red flag in and of itself,” Patel says. Most IT leaders understand the pressure project managers are under, and want to help remove obstacles for PMs who are working on projects for them.

“Make sure you can communicate clearly about the resources and the needs of the project, and that you know when to do so. You don’t want to wait until the project is in dire straits before you sound the alarm,” Patel says.

Make sure you’ve got a solid plan and a baseline for monitoring and measuring progress so you can diligently track how the project is going, and head off any potential problems, says Steve Casely, PMP, and professional trainer with CBT Nuggets.

“I’m an advocate of having a baseline in place and actively monitoring and managing against that baseline weekly. If I’m one month into the project and my dates are slipping by 3 days, I want to know if that’s that a trend, or a one-time thing? Where will I be at six weeks, or eight? And where are the issues coming up — on scope? On hitting critical dates? On budget?” he says.

Red flag: Single points of failure
Be wary of any project that includes a single point of failure, says Caseley, because it’s almost a given that something will go wrong, and without a backup plan the entire project is at risk. Years ago, Casely says, he was managing a project for a large Canadian telecommunications firm to integrate new equipment. Everything seemed to be going smoothly; on time, on budget, and the project looked like it was going to be a success. “Famous last words, “Caseley says.

“We were dealing with a single vendor for this equipment, and we’d done our due diligence on them, and on the project. What happened was that the government suddenly passed a new sales-tax law that impacted our project, and that threw everything into a tailspin. Our vendor started having to go back and do retrofitting on previous clients, which threw them off schedule for our project. Then, they completely dropped the ball on doing ours, and we were left hanging. The project eventually got cancelled,” he says. In other words, the red flag may be one that’s external, and isn’t in any way something a project manager can control.

Theoretically, you always should have a backup plan — in the case of this example, a secondary vendor that could come in when the original vendor dropped out, Ward says. But in the real world, many times there isn’t enough room in the budget to afford to keep a backup vendor on the books, or there isn’t enough time in the project schedule to account for this.

“This comes down to a risk management problem. Sometimes, you have to assess the amount of risk and take the chance, and sometimes the risk is huge but you take the steps to mitigate it, like having a backup, or by instituting SLAs or by buying insurance. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the project can fail,” he says.

Red flag: Not using frameworks
Whether your project is in construction or deploying a new software solution, projects tend to unfold similarly and all are subject to the same constraints: time, resources and quality. That’s why project management frameworks, like that espoused by the Project Management Institute (PMI) or ITIL, are helpful — even necessary — to identify weaknesses or possible points of failure and to mitigate those, says Ward.

“Bad things can happen when you aren’t using these processes and frameworks. That doesn’t mean you always have to plan and execute a project in the exact way a framework suggests; you can customize the frameworks to match up with your time, resources and the expected quality, but the closer you get to the framework, the less risk you’ll have overall and the greater the chance of success,” Ward says.

 

 

6 proven strategies for evaluating and prioritizing IT projects

Within most large organizations – as well as smaller businesses – time and resources are in short supply yet high demand, making project selection more difficult. Evaluating and prioritizing projects can be complex, but this vital first step can negatively impact the business if not assessed carefully.

Regardless of business size, industry or structure, many projects today are unfortunately still selected and initiated in a siloed department-by-department manner, without considering the overall strategic impact. What are the risks of initiating projects in this manner? Businesses run the risk of more than one area competing for the same project resources, including people and technologies, and also conflicting deadlines and goals. They may even risk some project outcomes negatively impacting other areas of the business.

All too often every department or unit deems their projects a top priority. The bad news is unless a business has unlimited resources, time and no real clear direction, it is impossible to assess all projects as top priority. The good news is, there are some proven strategies for evaluating and prioritizing projects.

1. Become involved in strategic level planning

The first step for a program, portfolio or project manager is to become involved in strategic level planning. Sit down with the leadership team to gain a full understanding of the direction of the business, the timing, and their overall vision; there is no such thing as too much detail here.

This may require more than one strategic planning session, and will provide valuable insights to help guide decision-making for programs, portfolios, and projects. Consider this similar to a roadmap or blueprint that will not only mark the desired destination but also provide additional markers along the way to follow, to help confirm if you are navigating in the right direction.

2. Identify project drivers

Projects can be driven by various factors like some of the ones below. Some of these drivers may motivate a business to initiate a project for the purpose of creating or enhancing something, meeting a requirement or hurdle, reducing the risk, removing an existing or potential problem, increasing revenues, offering an opportunity not previously available or simply streamlining a process. Talk with management to identify which of the following drivers are motivating each proposed project.

  • Competitive advantage
  • Cost savings/financial benefit
  • Operational efficiency/process improvement
  • Legislative/legal/ tax implications
  • Improving quality
  • Risk reduction
  • Growth/ business opportunities

3. Quantify strategic value

Ask management to discuss the various projects they are considering to determine the impact and desired project outcomes. This will help to better understand and quantify the strategic value, immediate and/or long-term impact as well as anticipated benefits of each project being considered. The risks of not starting certain projects on schedule will also have to be weighed carefully. For instance, some projects may be of great strategic value, and add numerous benefits, yet may not be top priority when compared to another project driven by legal, tax or legislative requirements.
4. Determine factors that may impact project success

Additional factors that should carefully be considered are the return on investment (ROI), budgeted funds, available resources, and timing, and if there are any dependencies or limitations (among other factors). Company budgets and timing are almost always limited, making it impossible to take on all project ideas conceived. Some projects may need to be put on hold if they depend on the successful outcomes of other projects, or there may be factors outside of the business’s control that could delay or prevent the success of one or more projects.

5. Create an evaluation and prioritization matrix

Once you have gathered all the applicable information from management and other sources, create a project evaluation and prioritization matrix to identify and rate each project in terms of criteria. Use a weighted scale (for example 1 to 5, with 1 = very low, 2 = low, 3 = medium, 4 = high, 5 = critical) to put a rating on each of the criteria in order to accurately evaluate the priority of each project.

6. Close the loop

After projects have been carefully weighted and prioritized, before initiating any of the projects sit down again with management and review the project evaluation and prioritization matrix, and any other findings, to ensure expectations are clear with all parties involved. This allows management an additional opportunity for added input, and to confirm if they are in agreement with your findings.

Source: CIO.com- 6 proven strategies for evaluating and prioritizing IT projects by Moira Alexander

6 strategic projects any business can implement in 2016

To define business objectives, most large organizations host strategic planning sessions to set roadmaps to allocate budgets and resources for specific projects in the new year. Here are six strategic projects any business, regardless of size, should plan to implement in 2016.

As 2016 begins, now is the time for businesses (regardless of industry, size, product or service offering, or location) to take stock of all resources and initiatives, and plan strategy-centric projects to implement in the New Year. There are many projects any business can implement that, if executed successfully, can create fresh opportunities or drastically reduce the chance of costly missed opportunities.

Projects are often pursued for the purpose of generating revenues, creating growth opportunities, seeking innovation or even increasing brand awareness, but it can be easy to get caught up in just day-to-day operations without recognizing the actual cost of missing some more basic projects. Here are six projects any business can implement in 2016 to help ensure the people, processes and technologies are working together effectively to create better opportunities or avoid missed ones.

Project 1: Put more focus on projects that support strategy

Whether your business is small, mid-size or large, your first project should be an initiative to review the vision and direction intended for the business, and ensure all projects support that vision. If your business is small, you can achieve this by assigning one person to be a dedicated or part-time project manager, focusing time and efforts in this regard. Larger organizations can transition their traditional Project Management Office (PMO) into a high-performing Enterprise Project Management Office (EPMO) that ensures all projects, programs and portfolios are channeled effectively and efficiently to fully support the company-wide strategic direction.

Project 2: Re-assess customer/client needs

The end result for businesses ultimately is to meet the needs of customers, regardless of a product or service. Now is the time to pause and think about whether your product or service is meeting the needs of your current or potential customers. Have you solicited feedback? What feedback have you received? Is the product or service you provide meeting their needs? If not, something needs to change. If you are meeting their needs, maybe exceeding expectations could be the new goal. Either way, this would be a good time to assign project management resources to address this, and stay ahead of the game. Remember, client’s needs change. It is easier and less costly to keep an existing client happy than to have to find a new one.

Project 3: Take on business process improvements (BPI)

The processes that were put in place when the business started may not be effective or even relevant anymore. This is another area businesses should revisit annually to reduce manual workarounds caused by ineffective business processes.

As a business grows, processes must be updated or possibly removed if they no longer make sense or if they create unnecessary work for employees. This does not always mean there is a need to take on costly process re-engineering initiatives. Often times after the process reviews are complete, you may need to make only minor modifications to a process to achieve overall improvements, cost and time savings. It makes no sense to continue using a process or partial process if the only reason it is in place is because “it has always been done that way.” This is one of those areas where past performance should not necessarily be an indicator of acceptable future performance.
Project 4: Revisit vendor service offerings

Many business owners and management intend to make vendor- or service-offering-related changes but, because they are so busy, they plod along paying for services that do not fully meet their needs. As companies grow and change so do their needs. Often times their back-office functions in particular can no longer keep pace in a way that supports current and future business growth requirements or potential. For example, this may be of particular issue for many small to mid-market businesses owners who receive accounting related services that only provide after the fact, partial, and not necessarily relevant financial information; making unnecessarily difficult to make crucial decisions on time.

All vendor service offerings should fully meet the needs of the business. Otherwise it is a poor use of financial resources, regardless of the dollar amount. It simply makes sense to pay for performance. This project should be on every business owner’s annual list.

Project 5: Review and re-vamp information systems and technology (IS&T)

In conjunction with revisiting vendor service offerings, taking an inventory of all information systems and technologies should also be on your project list. Advancements are always taking place, and as your business grows or changes, it creates the potential for the systems/applications and technologies you use to also require changes.

This is not to suggest jumping ship annually with all vendors or service providers, only make the move when significant gaps exist and existing offerings cannot sufficiently support the business currently or going forward. As with the vendor service offerings mentioned above, it may be time to either implement required enhancements if available internally or outsource to specialized service providers. Careful planning and selection is the key to finding solutions that are scalable to grow as your business grows.

Project 6: Re-deploying human resources

This is one of the most important and most difficult projects to approach as it has the potential to place employees in a state of panic. That said, it can also be one of the most rewarding for many employees as it can open up opportunities for advancement as well. Be transparent and talk with employees about this initiative in advance to alleviate the fear of job loss.

The goal behind this project should be to determine the most value-added use of human resource by matching high-level skill sets to key job requirements, and then re-deploying those human resources to better meet strategic objectives. It makes sense to sit down with individual employees to discuss their interests and career goals in conjunction with the business goals to create as much synergy as possible prior to making any changes.

Source: CIO.com – 6 strategic projects any business can implement in 2016 By Moira Alexander

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