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How to Make IT a Business Enabler Part 2 of a two-part series on the IT crisis
Originally published March 19, 2013
Part 1 of this article described the crisis in IT that is causing it to be a business obstacle rather than a business enabler. IT is at a “crisis stage in a process, when a significant change takes place”1 – a tipping point. Practices from the past are not adequate for supporting the demands on business today. This tipping point will transform IT, pushing it to focus more directly on how the business operates.
New technology helps IT develop complete and consistent designs for business processes, generate IT solutions quickly and govern data, rules, and usage. Using this technology makes it possible to create an IT organization that is no longer seen as an obstacle to meeting business demands and act as a full partner in achieving business success. A transformation will require IT to focus on two fundamental priorities:
- Transforming IT processes and practices so that IT becomes a business enabler, and
- Dealing with IT legacy applications that prevent IT from responding quickly to business demands.
Transforming IT into a Business Enabler
The way IT can best enable the business is to dedicate itself to:
- Identifying and pursuing opportunities for improving and enhancing business process performance – IT must take the initiative in supporting innovation and adapting to changes in the business’s strategy, conditions, and regulatory requirements. Rather than waiting for the business to determine how to address these needs, IT must use technology to capture the design of a business’s operations and use this business design to deliver IT solutions instantly. IT must focus on improving business operations instead of spending time and resources on application software and platforms.
Consider how an IT project is initiated today. First, a need for the project is identified by a business unit or department. Then these business needs for IT support are prioritized. Projects are initiated and scheduled based on priorities and availability of IT resources. This approach is focused on allocating IT resources, resources which are insufficient to meet IT’s backlog of project work.
Computer-aided business design and computer-generated applications will reduce or eliminate the constraint of IT resources to IT’s support of the business. This new technology will provide IT with the ability to work shoulder-to-shoulder with business leaders to:
- Set goals and/or strategies – As Stephen Covey wrote, to be successful requires beginning with the end in mind. Establishing the goals to be achieved is more than a target; it is a measure of success that will focus the effort on specific business goals.
- Align operational processes with goals – Operations as they exist do not automatically produce desired results. The need for operational adjustments is reflected in the periodic (and often frequent) revisions companies make to their organization charts as they try to manage their way to better results.
IT can take the initiative in analyzing and improving business processes that affect the goals. The analysis needs to address all process actions, including manual actions, such as analyzing a report or approving a decision, as well as those that involve a computer.
The key to this transition is to change from a “software development process” (example from Wikipedia) to a process focused on operational business design:
Aligning operational processes with business goals requires mastering process analysis – identifying business processes, defining process actions and how they are performed, determining the user interface for each process action, developing use cases for understanding how a process and its actions work in practice, and documenting data definitions and rules, including those for analytics and metrics – will provide IT with the skills and experience to identify ways to improve the business and help achieve its goals.
Technology that provides computer-aided capture of these elements allows IT to represent and, more importantly, validate operational business designs. Business designs need to be validated to ensure they contain complete and consistent specifications for software applications.
Rebuilding IT around these four actions will elevate IT’s status to that of a true partner fully involved in the success of the business.
- Use technology to computer-generate applications – This capability is essential for IT to move from focusing on applications to business operations. Without this, IT cannot break free from the technical hodge-podge it must deal with today.
- Monitor the performance of aligned operations – Use KPI and metric results to monitor progress towards achieving the desired business goals. IT must help analyze results and determine additional process adjustments that may be necessary to achieve the business goal. These may range from finding more process improvements to revising business direction.
- Providing business design standards, controls, and compliance – Standards and controls for defining business operations provide the basis for ensuring compliance with regulations and corporate direction.
Once freed from the diverse technologies of the technology hodge-podge, IT can establish and enforce standards for business data, rules, processes, user interfaces, management, and all elements of business design. Expanding IT standards to business designs will allow IT to apply lessons learned from completed business designs and establish preferred business patterns. This is not simply a means to establishing a standard approach to business design; it can become the cornerstone of governance of processes, process actions, data, and rules rather than technical standards about technologies, software objects, and so forth.
Also, including all actions performed in a process, not only computer-supported ones, provides a representation of the business, how it operates, and the way application software supports the business operation that will simplify operational and compliance audits. Mapping process actions to organization charts, business functions, strategy maps, and other management views will simplify examinations and verifications performed by internal and external auditors by providing them with documentation specifying how the business operates.
- Reducing the resources required for IT infrastructure – Committing IT to developing business designs and computer-generating complete applications will help IT reduce costs. Eliminating the cost of programming is the obvious cost reduction. Managing the costs of the data center is another.
The ability to regenerate applications will allow IT to take advantage of new platforms and technologies. For example, “Facebook launched the Open Compute project in 2011 to improve data center efficiency and drive hardware prices down, . . . [an initiative that] has grown to more than 50 official members and dozens of contributions from a wide variety of technology suppliers and consumers.”2 Inevitably, this will become a market force, if only through pressure on technology suppliers, for reducing IT costs.
Eliminating application code as an obstacle to adopting new platforms and technologies will allow IT to reduce the resources required for platform management, application support, data center and network management, and disaster recovery.
Technical innovations that affect IT continue with no end in sight. The ability to implement them simply? Priceless.
An IT department committed to adding business value in these ways will make IT an enabler of the business rather than the obstacle it is considered to be today. However, how can IT transform itself when it is confronted with the legacy applications that consume so much time and resources today?
Dealing with Legacy IT Applications
IT needs to leave behind the hodge-podge that has been built up over decades and its accumulated technical complexity. This requires setting a point in time when everything about defining and delivering IT solutions will change.
But how does an IT department that is focused on business design work with all the applications and investments in place today? It will be necessary for computer-generated applications to coexist and interact with existing applications through files and messages. However, there are challenges that need to be faced:
- Licensed commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products, such as CRM, ERP, SCM Financial software, SaaS, and others: Commercial applications are positioned by vendors that sell them to be proprietary. These applications create their own information silos that present data issues and integration challenges. They are important for supporting core business operations and may be complex and difficult to replace (and, in many cases, to use). It will be necessary for computer-generated applications to interact with these commercial applications using messages and files.
But, just as a mall has anchor stores, these products are cornerstones of the IT hodge-podge. Large commercial applications are expensive to maintain, typically having annual fees of 20% or more of the initial purchase price. Add to that the IT staff needed to support the product, and ongoing costs are not inconsequential. Over time, it will be possible to replace licensed products with cheaper, computer-generated custom applications unique to your business. Until then, purchased applications will continue supporting silos of business processing and data.
- Legacy custom and homegrown applications: Legacy applications are important for supporting business operations and can also be complex and difficult to replace. These applications are important for supporting business operations and present data issues and integration challenges as well.
Replacing legacy applications with cheaper, custom computer-generated applications that meet business needs will be easier than replacing purchased applications. These silos of business processing and data can be easily replaced when they require new or changed functionality. However, there is a related challenge: invisible business rules.
- Invisible rules: The single biggest obstacle to replacing legacy systems, in my experience, is “invisible” rules. Rules are invisible because they are buried in millions of lines of code, in thousands of programs, in hundreds of application systems, in dozens of programming languages. Extracting these rules, rationalizing them, and standardizing them and the data they use present a huge, but necessary, challenge for every IT organization.
Meeting this challenge is necessary because the risk inherent in relying on unknown rules is not a long-term solution. Identifying business rules and making them visible, understanding how, when, and where they are applied, and managing them separate from application software is essential for effectively developing and managing business designs.
- Business intelligence (BI), master data, and data management solutions: All data management solutions exist because of the problems associated with application silos of business processing and data. If there were no data problems, there would be no need for, or discussion of, data quality, master data, data warehouses, and other data management solutions.
It will be essential that a technology that generates a business application eliminates the problems that come from silos of business processing and data. In other words, the technology must enforce software engineering principles including SPOT (single point of truth) so that every piece of knowledge in all computer-generated applications has a single, unambiguous, authoritative representation within a system. This is pertinent to data and processing so there is no redundancy in data or processing of business rules. This principle is sometimes called DRY, for “don’t repeat yourself.”
The outcome is a unified application that eliminates problems that come from redundancy and duplication. This unified approach allows attention to be focused on data values and processing rules rather than application programs.
There are powerful forces in technology that are making a single unified application with a single database possible. One driving force is massively parallel processing for storing data on disks. While commercially available for decades, these MPP options are under pressure to lower their costs now that open source and lower-cost alternatives are available.
The second force is replacing disk-based data storage with in-memory databases. “In-memory DMBS (IMDBMS) technologies exhibit extremely fast query response and data commit times which introduce a higher probability that analytics and transactional systems can share the same database [my emphasis].”3
With the ability to bring all business data into one instance with no data redundancy or duplication and in memory for instantaneous response times, IT will be able to focus on a single set of data and a single set of rules for processing it. IT will be able to focus on business processes, the user interface they need, and the data and rules that support them.
- Shadow IT: Shadow IT refers to the business doing IT work for itself without engaging IT. While shadow IT will never be completely replaced – after all, self-service BI can be construed as shadow IT – it does create information silos with data issues and integration challenges of their own.
The goal is to replace shadow IT with self service so that users have no need to create separate data and processing rules but can use unified application rules and data to create their own reports, queries, and analytic models from the data and rules it contains.
Overcoming these challenges is essential if IT is to focus completely on the business, how it operates, the data it uses, the business rules it applies, and the user interface to digital information.
The way business application software has been created has not changed significantly since computers were introduced into the business. There was a period from roughly 1980 to 1995 where computer-aided software engineering (CASE) tools were available. The problem with them, to use a process re-engineering term, was they “paved the cow path” – they provided automated support for the way IT professionals do their tasks but did not automate or eliminate IT work. New programming languages, like Ruby, Python, PHP, and others, continue to be introduced. But these don’t eliminate the need to write programs.
What is needed is automation of IT. It is time for IT to automate its activities to improve IT effectiveness like automation has been applied to business activities to improve operational effectiveness. Without doing this IT will continue being an obstacle to rapidly moving businesses. Businesses that don’t automate IT will fall behind those that do.
The time to begin the transformation of IT into a full, effective, and valuable partner helping achieve business goals by delivering solutions at the speed the business needs is now. End Notes:
- Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition, 2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 ©HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, cited on Dictionary.com, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tipping+point?s=t
- Henderson, Nicole. “Open Compute Project Brings Rivals Together to Develop Server Motherboard.” Web Host Industry Review, http://www.thewhir.com/web-hosting-news/open-compute-project-brings-rivals-together-to-develop-server-motherboard (January 16, 2013)
- “Gartner Identifies Nine Key Data Warehousing Trends for the CIO in 2011 and 2012.” Gartner Press Release, http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1542914 (February 9, 2011)
SOURCE: How to Make IT a Business Enabler
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