Breaking the nexus – IT delivery at the speed of business

“IT departments are blocking businesses achieve more and can’t keep up.”
Is this true? Is this what’s happening out there?

I’ve heard this complaint from business people on and off for some ten years or more but lately it’s become a somewhat common theme. In a number of recent in-depth conversations with senior business people across a range of industry segments it was all they wanted to talk about. Is this true? Has IT truly become a blocker to business velocity? What’s more: if it is true what can we do about it?

Many modern IT departments show some interesting common characteristics:

  • Strict governance frameworks – no application can get near production unless it’s been through an entire project governance process which requires time and money.
  • The adoption of offshore development and operations has reinforced the need for strong disciplines in areas such as requirements and Functional Specifications. This discipline takes time.
  • CIO’s and whole IT departments are being increasingly measured on production uptime but stability of systems = high availability. Why would any CIO encourage rapid change in these circumstances?
  • Have become geared towards large projects that take time, money and discipline.
  • IT struggling to remain a strong contributor to business success rather than merely act as another supplier to the business.

Many of the business people I’ve been talking to lately are saying the following:

  • Opportunities are appearing and disappearing more frequently.
  • Feel that their IT departments can’t move fast enough to support them.
  • They can now do so much without the need for their IT departments getting involved. This is because so many of these tools are becoming democratised – businesses can adopt them quickly to receive value without intervention by IT. Business can now sign up for all manner of services from e-mail to CRM to document management, web site setup and management, Business Intelligence, HRMS, GIS etc. etc. All of this can be done without the involvement and even the approval of IT and what’s more they can do this in a matters of days and weeks.

Business and IT misalignment

If these characteristics are anywhere near typical, IT departments are not deliberately blocking business progress, but have become constrained to large projects and large delivery due to circumstances and a misalignment of business cycles. Business wants to take advantage of new market opportunities in a matter of weeks but is increasingly unable to do so because their IT departments can’t or won’t move fast enough to support them.

As my colleague PEG discusses in his “Why we can’t keep up” post business and IT cycles have become misaligned. IT departments are typically geared to static cycles in both time and project investment while business cycle times are accelerating and project investments are reducing.

Misaligned cycles

PEG’s misaligned cycles

We’re seemingly reaching a point of no return where business can go rogue and go outside of IT, without their inputs and blessing to get things done. This is far from ideal. So what can we do about this? How can we bridge the gap between business and IT and support the needs and constraints of both parties?

One approach is to introduce the concept of an initiative incubator strategy where an external party works with both the business and IT develop and trial new business initiatives without threatening production systems. When and only when the business value of the initiatives are proven to a limited scale in the marketplace and the business case is de-risked do we then transition the initiative to production-scale toolsets and deploy to production within the standard project governance frameworks. Why external? Because an external party can provide additional capacity and ideas without disrupting business as usual activities.

They key to this strategy from the business’ point of view is to not try and solve all of the problems at once – how can we deliver 80% of the business value in 20% of the time to a small audience to prove (or disprove) the value of the proposition? From IT’s point of view, they need to know that rogue projects won’t threaten production systems and when the business value of the initiatives are proven, they will be given the opportunity to introduce appropriate of tools and disciplines before the initiatives can be considered production ready. The parties must be engaged to appreciate the benefits and controls of the approach.

Step 1 – Identify the highest priority initiative that the business wants to prove / disprove.

Step 2 – Break this initiative down into chunks that deliver the most value first.

Step 3 – Use a third party to quickly build a ‘conference room’ style demonstration of the initiative. Most IT departments are usually resource constrained and the introduction of an unencumbered third party that can focus on the task at hand can speed up the process and introduces new ideas.

Step 4 – Evolve the initiative based on initial feedback.

Step 5 – Launch a closed, externally hosted trial of the new initiative to a limited audience.

Step 6 – Evolve the trial initiative based on user feedback (weekly? daily?), monitor and evaluate.

Step 7 – Slowly increase the scale of the initiative by borrowing from Google’s Gmail strategy. Allow each of the trial participants to invite a small number of their friends / colleagues to also participate in the trial. This allows the shaping and managing of the demand curve.

Step 8 – Decision time. Does the business proceed to the business case phase with the knowledge that it has real, valid marketplace data to justify the transition to production development and deployment or does it shelve the initiative having spent a fraction of the cost of an at-risk project? Shelving of the project does not necessarily mean throwing it away. Perhaps the timing of the introduction of the initiative isn’t right. Maybe the initiative is a good idea at the wrong time.

Step 9 – While production development work is underway the trial can continue and the business can continue to receive value. At the appropriate point in time, IT can deploy the new initiative to production the externally hosted trial can be turned off.

Initiative incubator

The beauty of this approach is that multiple initiatives can be conducted in parallel for a fraction of the cost of at-risk projects. The initiatives can be constructed and introduced quickly, without significantly impacting production and only those that will be truly successful are transitioned to production.

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  1. I like the approach you propose. It gives the business the flexibility and the IT department the stability they are looking for. However, since demands from the business to the IT are changing, would it not be good to revisit the way IT departments/services are measured? It might be an idea to include responsiveness to business needs in the KPI’s. That could still imply that most work on new initiatives can be done outside, but you also keep the internal IT departments active in new develoments, which will lead to more ownership of these systems and possibly easier integration, because they have the knowledge of the running systems, so also know which characteristics need to be taken into account.

      • shermo
      • January 6th, 2010

      I agree Arjan and I was thinking that revisiting how IT departments are measured would make a good topic for a follow up post. It seems to me that as business is still taking a very one dimensional approach to how it treats its IT departments and aligning the measurements with the key drivers of the business (both agility and stability) makes sense.

  1. January 25th, 2010

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