Sunday, April 11, 2010

We should stop talking about ‘the business’ versus ‘IT'


I have been reading lately more and more about the divide between IT and the business while even the word “hate” is being used. Proper IT Governance is the solution to the answer. In my simple words IT Governance means integral management of business and IT. Work side by side at all levels of the organisation.

(see also the blog post from the IT Governance Evangelist)

Issues that business managers have with IT range from problematic communication, bureaucratic processes, lack of understanding of the business, too expensive, does not deliver and does not deliver on time and so forth.

The key problem is that from the top onwards, it is considered that IT should be a commodity. It is considered a cost center and not an enabler. You just ask, the solution should come quickly, easily and it should just work.

Unfortunately that is not the case. The number one reason is that IT simply is not a commodity. Bad luck for Nicholas Carr, but most of IT simply is tailor made for the enterprise and that whatever we could call a commodity changes almost daily. The parts that these days could be considered a commodity (e.g. networking, hosting, devices) still require expert management. If you lack this, you run a high risk that you don’t get the quality or price you could get. (You’ve spend so much effort to earn the money. Then why just waste on unnecessary expenses?)

Most business systems need to be tailor made to the uniqueness of each business. It simply means that there is much business analysis and much engineering required. It also simply means that knowledge about the solution is scarce. If systems change every day, how do you expect the helpdesk to keep up? And there is so much of it. What would be a bigger job? Engineering a new car or a new word processor? But through our desktop we don’t drive only the word processor, we want to drive 30 aeroplanes, 6 space shuttles, 3 submarines and 45 different cars. (Maybe I’m going just a bit too far, but you get the point – how many helpdesk staff would you need for that?).

IT solutions must be unique to the business because the business wants to use it to distinguish itself from its competitors and have that unique advantage. As a business you need to understand IT in order to get the most out of it and leverage from the opportunities. If you don’t, you simply have higher cost, are less productive and just don’t have that competitive edge. So I would think that it simply makes sense to make sure that your business managers get IT.

Now, IT comes with a few intricacies. It changes all the time. Every day there is new technology that you can use. And we want to use it. We want use it before it is robust enough that there are almost guaranteed no stability issues. It is getting better these days. Just compare Windows XP or Windows 7 with the previous versions. But still… And when you use it, you use quite often uniquely engineered solutions. And that means that by definition it is not as rigorously tested and completed as it would be with something that is mass produced. That would be too expensive. And it is already expensive due to its unique engineering. Besides this vendors and new technology make that every system has a different user interface. That's not making life easer either.

So does IT matter? Yes, otherwise you wouldn’t make such a big deal about it. The frustration wouldn’t be that high. You wouldn’t be so reliant on it.

Are IT processes bureaucratic? Don’t know. If you want to build a new 60 story office, it has to go through a certain process as well. However most of that building and engineering effort is hidden from you as a business; simply because it is not unique for you as an organisation. If you would create a new factory floor, it would be unique for your business and again, that has to go through strict processes. That is not considered to be bureaucratic? The difference is that you wouldn’t want to change your mind every day of how the factory floor would need to be set up. But when it comes down to our business systems we want to be able to change our mind daily. Then any process will be experienced as a bureaucracy, the project will take longer than planned and the results will not be exactly as expected.

Yes, the quality should go up. Within IT we change our ways of working, the tools and raw material we use constantly. This does not help either to come with robust results. Why we do this? Because we can do so much more. 20 years ago our information was locked within the boundaries of our organisation, 10 years ago we were able to bring this to any place in the world via the Internet and these days you can get it on any device wherever you go.

We simply want to use this non-robust technology. We all know that there are high risks with Internet banking. Translate this risk to an aeroplane and nobody would fly anymore. As a bank you don’t have to provide Internet banking services to clients. Wait another 20 years until the technology is save enough. But since your competitors are doing it, you want to do it as well. Your customers are willing to take the risk, so you have too.

Just because your IT is not a commodity, because it is so important to you and because there is nothing anymore you do that does not go through IT systems, you better make sure you get IT. You better work very closely with your IT department to get the best out of it.

IT skills are important these days for any business manager and in fact basically for all staff in the organisation. It is not much different as the need to have people management and financial management skills. Businesses that are less successful in governing their IT and leveraging from the opportunities are simply less successful businesses.

Governing and managing IT, defining IT strategies in alignment with business strategies is not easy. It is not easy to get IT for the same reasons as mentioned above. There is no formula that guarantees success just as there isn’t one for managing your people or for managing your enterprise. It means you need to work together as a team, have IT on the strategic agenda and accept that things won’t be predictable. Just as much as the sales and marketing teams will never be able to guarantee that they will meet their predictions.

The level to which this needs to happen can vary from organisation to organisation. For a wide variety of small business I can see that IT does not have too much of a strategic enabler. It is just required to do your accounting. But still, and this applies regardless of the size, you need to be savvy enough to assure that don’t underspend and are not very productive or that you make yourself fully reliant on a service provider without knowing whether you get value for money.

Where the IT department has the responsibility to ensure that the IT department matures in their processes and services, it is a general business responsibility, including that of the IT department, to ensure that IT governance within the organisation matures. IT needs to speak the language of the business and the business needs to speak the language of IT.

Luckily the problems are not as black and white as all those discussions make you belief. Though in my experience the management of IT on the top is a difficult issue, I have experienced in various occasions that the business team and the IT team can work perfectly in tandem to achieve fantastic results. I don't belief that is limited to my personal experience and that there are many more success stories. Though I do envy the guys at CVS Caremark. They don't have IT projects, just business projects. Notice the following statement: "That type of IT governance awareness comes from the top, he says, and is ingrained into every technology-related discussion".

Proper IT Governance is just good business management practice and we should stop talking about ‘the business’ versus ‘IT’.

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