IT Strategy – Winning formula focuses on business

IT Strategy - Winning formula focuses on business

Businesses are not getting the sharpened performance they need fromIT because of the industry's obsession with technology over businessobjectives. David Jacobs says that a new breed of IT professionals withboth a gift for communication and commercial acumen are vital.

How many users of a new computer system have you ever heard say: “It’s wonderful, it makes our job easier, it’s so well designed, it’s boosted our morale and our business, it’s so well aligned to our daily needs …”? None? If so, sadly you’d be in the majority. So what is going wrong? We have wonderful new technology and tomorrow it’s always more capable than today. Where is the problem and how can we get rid of it? Are our expectations too high? How can we get more out of the same?

The first step is to acknowledge we have got a problem and that the business world is having severe difficulty making the best use of IT. Press reports show how slowly business management and IT have been learning to work together and this gives serious cause for concern. More worrying is that the valuable business/IT cross-breed professional is not much in evidence.

We know it’s a good concept: a senior IT manager was recently quoted as saying “we need a different breed of player both IT capable and business literate.” So what’s causing the difficulty?

The first obstacle is the IT industry’s obsession with technology and lack of focus on business objectives. Aspiring IT professionals find business acumen stifled as they are channelled towards technical activities.

Of course we need good technologists but the “Information Grand Prix” cannot be won by mechanics alone, good drivers must also be found. IT professionals with a leaning towards being communicators must be encouraged.

Technical geniuses are of little use without the ability to apply that technical skill to the pursuit of real world business objectives.

Admittedly the concept of software is new and new management techniques are required to exploit it. Unfortunately many of these techniques are not yet mature. To make matters worse non-IT business people are afraid to get involved and display what may be seen as a lack of ability. IT could help here by displaying a more welcoming attitude.

Another consequence of the technical “over-focus” is that many projects have failed because the business requirements were not correctly identified.

In fact, IT should be explaining to the business how crucial accurate business requirements are, instead of laying the blame on the users for “changing the requirements” or just not knowing as is so often the case.

The customary loose IT attitude to accurate business requirements displays a distinct lack of appreciation for the fact that real businesses change every day and accurate requirements are essential not optional; one misguided piece of programming can mean thousands of unnecessary user actions in a day’s work. Furthermore, IT people should be begging the users to thrash the system at test stage not trying to avoid it as is the case so often.

IT departments would also do well to explain to the business that the development of a computer system will typically involve making the kind of rigorous pre-emptive decisions the business has never had to worry about in the past. Also that businesses must be prepared to second very significant human resources to a project if success is to be achieved.

IT could also benefit from coming clean about the risks and realities.

Many systems are technically too ambitious and expectations unrealistically set. If the business objectives were used as the main criteria rather than IT’s indulgence in using tomorrow’s technology today, dependable results might be achieved with more regularity. Where technology is risky it isn’t technical skills that will have most effect in minimising that risk, it’s sensible objective-driven management.

So what of the hybrid manager who should be able to sort all this out?

Is he or she getting the chance? In other walks of life a problem of two parties failing to communicate is usually resolved by a middle-man.

Therefore the obvious answer would be to use these professionals with experience of both sides of the IT fence. However the potentially large number of people who could fulfil this role are precisely those who may have found themselves being herded towards technical roles by the IT industry (that seems to believe that lots of software coding is the answer to almost all business problems) or else being deemed as insufficiently expert in the technology by the business itself. This creates a skills shortage right where the skill is most needed. Businesses can help themselves here by looking more at candidates’ contextual experience and abilities when recruiting. The wrong impression is constantly being given by clients and agents alike that specific technical experience is all. We are losing those desperately needed individuals who can mediate competent technology into place. Unlike their predecessors, the latest generation of software professionals have only IT experience. Therefore what perspective we may have ever had on real business needs is evaporating. The problem of misunderstanding between business and IT is likely to get worse unless something is done. Companies can make a start for themselves by encouraging active communication and understanding. If you don’t have anyone who can set this up then hire somebody who can. Find a hybrid business information/IT person and support them strongly. The results will speak for themselves.

Bear in mind however that such a person doesn’t have to be a “master of all trades” to fulfil this function. The importance of the interpreter is obvious at an international summit, despite the fact that they may know comparatively little about the precise issues.

Consider the potential benefits of such an interpreter working in your business; someone who understands enough about the structure of IT and your needs to bridge the communication gulf-less misunderstanding, shorter time scales, better productivity and so on. If you decide to take this route, though, be realistic; technology is advancing fast and these people should not be expected to understand every nuance of it.

Currently, IT project managers tend to come from a pure IT background when they will be technically qualified but not sufficiently business-sympathetic. If they come from the business itself the IT department (and even the business) sometimes may not trust their technical skills.

This does, however, seem to be the preferred route. This is logical as IT people are so often not good at managing their own IT projects, and secondly there is a ready-made connection to the business requirements via the senior “non IT” manager in charge. Probably the answer is a mix of both – collaboration!

Modern IT job advertisements seek experience of a growing multitude of technologies. These positions are predominantly technicians’ jobs and not for those who will manage the successful application of the technology to the business need. IT still owns too much of this process and business must regain control.

So far, IT’s answer to the problem has been the business analyst. However, the role of the new breed of business information professional is much wider than that of a business analyst. They have a much more positive contribution to make to the overall management and organisation of the project, forcefully directing it towards the business objectives.

To give it a try make sure you have a good “translator” on the user business/IT interface. Hire an IT consultant and you will often get IT on its own.

Hire a business information specialist and you might get someone who not only sympathises with your business need but actually addresses it head on! However, remember this strategy can only be effective if the business organisation and the IT department support the individual concerned.

As IT strategy is a dual activity, IT and the business must both learn as much as they reasonably can about each other’s practices.

So to give IT the best chance, make sure you have high-level representation and, being fair to IT, plenty of resources to define the system needs.

Also don’t be too ambitious about using the latest technical products, they may be too risky.

In general, attitudes must change. Those who can talk to the business must be encouraged to do so. The principle to be preached is that it is not the technology that will resolve the business need but the application of the technology, and IT development should be a dual activity by the business people and the IT personnel. There’s no need to take things to extremes but a new brand of mutual friendship would not go amiss.

– David Jacobs is a freelance business information specialist and journalist.

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