csvrClient/server deployment requires one piece of hardware you probably won’t find in the computer store: a new hat rack.

The challenges of setting strategic directions and policies, establishing standard platforms, and rolling out applications that share data have caused many companies to redeploy their information technology staffs.

What has emerged in the largest companies is a collaborative environment with some centralized control. Think of it not as a glass house, but a glass condominium. Corporate IT can’t afford to be an isolated tower of power.

At Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, for example, CIO Craig Goldman leads a “gang of 60” technologists in establishing global computing standards. Each technologist represents a business unit that budgets for, implements, and supports initiatives based on the standards.

The team approach eliminates an ivory tower. “They get in the boat and row with me,” said Goldman of his technologists. “We don’t have people who don’t have a sense of what it’s like in real life.”

However, collaboration does not mean eternal flexibility. “Once we’ve agreed on direction and standards, that becomes the law,” he said.

Like Chase, many other large organizations are adopting a split structure, where corporate IT establishes standards and a global infrastructure that departmental IT groups maintain, according to Richard Buchanan and John McCarthy, analysts at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. (see chart, Page 23).

“Large-scale client/server requires a high order of planning, design, and construction specialization,” Buchanan and McCarthy wrote in a recent report. “Similarly, constructing a skyscraper requires greater sophistication than building a woodshed.”

If corporate IT wears a fedora, then departmental IT wears a hard hat.

Pendulum swing

The pendulum is swinging back from decentralized freedom to more central IT control as computing environments become more complex.

“As information becomes more global, and more distributed, it stands to reason that we can’t continue to support islands of automation insulated from the rest of the organization,” said John Daly, senior industry analyst for Summit Strategies Inc., a research firm in Boston.

“Somebody has got to be in control,” echoed Charles Vetters, CEO of Micro Technology, an Aurora, Colo., consultancy with about 8,000 client/server installations under its belt. “Companies are saying, `We need to be smaller, smarter, closer together. We don’t want five systems out there that don’t talk to each other.'”

Creating a smaller organization is often the result of implementing client/server — another reason to redeploy staff. “The five-year plan may not guarantee a reduction of resources, but it’s usually part of the cost analysis,” Vetters said. That corporate IT calls the shots is purely practical. “They’re the ones with access to the five-year plan, and maybe they don’t want to talk about it.”

Yet there are variations on the IT split. Harris Methodist Health System, a $750 million health-care services firm based in Fort Worth, Texas, has a single IT group that sets standards and deploys applications for its various businesses: a health-maintenance organization, 10 hospitals, an insurance company, a home-care company, and an international health-care subsidiary.

Somewhat like Chase, Harris hires user-group coordinators from each of the businesses to help IT establish standards and assigns customer-support representatives to the groups to deploy applications. User-group members meet for 18 hours each month to identify business initiatives and technology solutions that meet company standards.

What happens when somebody has an idea for an application that can only be deployed with non-standard technology?

“We do grant exceptions, but they must be approved by IT,” said Larry Blevins, Harris senior vice president and CIO. They must also be well-documented and represent a temporary cost of doing business, rather than a permanent addition to the firm’s technology overhead, which could mean looming support costs down the road, he said.

In general, according to Vetters, departmental efforts that stray from the corporate plan have to be paid for and supported by the departmental organization. With that caveat, “You get few renegades spending bucks on experiments.”

Just how much departmental IT organizations can do depends on how entrepreneurial or anarchic the corporate organization is, according to Summit Strategies’ Daly.

A large insurance or retail organization like Wal-Mart, with a need to share data across the entire organization, would have more centralized control. The other extreme might be found at a company like 3M Corp., which fosters a spirit of entrepreneurism, Daly said.

Whether corporate IT is separate from or grouped with departmental IT (see related story, Page 21), a distinction between business and technology initiatives no longer exists. Across the board, companies are deciding that business initiatives drive applications, and not vice versa.

Small and midsized firms have come up with some creative ways to structure IT — and still meet the toughest challenges of client/server deployment.

Most organizations with revenues under $1 billion, in fact, can effectively handle trouble spots such as systems management, multivendor complexity, and security with a single IT staff, according to Forrester Research Inc., of Cambridge, Mass. (see chart, Page 24).

If you don’t get IT, you don’t get it

RealCom Office Communications, a 10-year-old telecommunications provider with $78 million in sales, has a distributed approach to systems management.

The company supports about 60 remote users in 15 branch offices, according to Eric Nelson, vice president of IT at RealCom, in Chantilly, Va. General managers at each remote site report to Nelson, who coordinates development efforts.

The company also maintains a distributed approach to processing. Each branch has enough bandwidth to do local transaction processing fairly easily, Nelson said. At headquarters in Atlanta and in Chantilly, RealCom is moving to a data warehouse to support back-office and decision-support systems that don’t require real-time processing.

For security, RealCom requires branches to dial in to hubs in Atlanta or Chantilly to get anywhere else on the LAN. And it has tackled multivendor complexity by limiting itself to two suppliers: Novell Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

Spanning the network

Like other small firms, WorldSpan, a privately held developer of travel-related software and services, is struggling with systems management.

“That is an area of lively discussion here,” said Paul Halstead, vice president of distributed systems for the Atlanta company, which is trying to decide whether to keep it in one group or to split it into areas of database administration, capacity planning, and application development.

WorldSpan’s IT, which Halstead described as a “single, integrated organization,” already distributes responsibility for security among departments. “The network services group will provide access [to data] based on security approval by the appropriate department heads,” he said.