The recession has forced IT executives to cut costs while trying to bring in quicker returns on investment, according to a study released Wednesday by AT&T.

For its "Road to Growth" study, AT&T spoke with 77 key IT executives from large global companies. Sixty-four percent said they're under pressure to focus on projects that bring in return on investment in half or less than half the time than in the past. As a result, two-thirds said this pressure has affected their IT budgets, strategies, and priorities.

One CIO said his company is looking at IT projects that deliver at least 100 percent ROI in 12 months--or else the project is cut.

With the recession still in force, companies are feeling the pinch to slash costs and boost sales. Toward that end, 87 percent of the IT execs questioned said that reducing operating costs was "extremely or very important." Improving collaboration with customers and partners was cited by 85 percent as "extremely or very important." And 83 percent cited enhancing workforce performance and productivity as "extremely or very important."

(Credit: AT&T)

The aggressive strategy is seen as prepping companies for an economic recovery next year. Most of the execs interviewed expect a recovery toward the middle or end of 2010. Their overall feeling is that the U.S. and China will be the first countries to bounce back from the recession.

Executives said that investing in business continuity and security could have the largest positive impact on growth as their companies get ready for an economic turnaround.

"U.S. companies are under added pressure to deliver, and IT investments are more critical than ever before," said Bill Archer, chief marketing officer at AT&T Business Solutions. "From the study, we expect U.S. companies to come out of the recession leaner and more agile. Technologies that cut cost, reduce redundancies and loss, and improve efficiencies top the priorities list."

The study was based on interviews with 47 IT executives in the U.S. and 30 in Europe representing global companies with annual sales of at least $1 billion. Interviewed were chief information officers, chief technology officers, and others with direct responsibility for IT budgets and strategy. The interviews were conducted between April 16 and June 19.