Start with a deep and real understanding of what is important, and importantly start from a place that is devoid of technology
In the Real Business of IT (Hunter, Westerman, 2009), the authors present a very clear and definitive position that IT can only create organizational value through information or process. They suggest that you can either increase the quality or timeliness of information or increase the efficiency, quality or functionality of processes. This is a wonderful guiding mental model to think about how technology can/will improve business performance. This is echoed, albeit from a different direction, in Enterprise Architecture as Strategy (Ross, Weill & Robertson, 2006) where the authors state that enterprise architecture is “the organizing logic of business process and IT infrastructure, reflecting the integration and standardization requirements of the company’s operating model.”
What can be taken away from this is that a focus on process (i.e. business process re-engineering, process automation, business process innovation) provides organizations the best opportunity to create high value, high impact transformative gains which are directly translated from the understanding/insights of how the core and critical process across the organization can be optimized. IT comes in to enable those improvements with information and process automation. Even in the case of business transformation, there is new information and processes to be designed and integrated into the operating model.
Reinforcing this concept The Real Business of IT authors present their revelation (they surveyed non-IT executives attending executive education at MIT) that Application Development, BPR/Organizational Change, Needs Identification and IT Oversight are the key IT value generators (Hunter & Westerman, 2009). Three of the four value generators are highly business process oriented.
For the most valuable, highest impact gains, process optimization should be approached at the Organizational (Enterprise) level. Enterprise Architecture is the path to understand the ‘what, who and why’ in terms of what the organization needs, who are its stakeholders and what the real value proposition is. IT is more about the ‘how and when’, and it is in the IT organization’s best interest to leverage the Enterprise Architecture capacity of the organization to derive insights about the organization’s core and critical processes.
In “Does IT Matter”, Carr’s 2003 often cited (and debated) Harvard Business Review article, which for me the essence of which is that IT on its own is not strategic and should be managed defensively.
There is value in this idea, and I put it into practice as IT must closely align to the core strategic business if value is to be achieved (aside from just keeping ‘the ship afloat’). What does that mean in a practical sense? Well, if the team is out there trying to deepen customer relationships or getting new customers or engaging them in innovative ways, IT ONLY really wins when IT initiatives are successful at enabling the organization to achieve those core strategies (obviously outside of major business overhaul). You still need to upgrade your mail server, and improve your support process and deliver ‘run the business’ IT. But it is with the ‘transform/grow’ the business initiatives that visible success will be attained, and IT will win. Give the team great email; but in this example you also must understand that you need to give the team advanced analytics and behaviour centric CRM technologies to deepen relationships and seamless mobile/tablets integrated into your information foundation so they can better engage those customers when face to face and push those innovations into the wild (e.g. online, social, mobile) and into the customers hands to drive engagement to new levels.
IT, not for IT’s sake
Jeff Bezo’s early management of Amazon (as explained by Werner Vogels in his excellent InfoQ presentation from several years ago) is an excellent example of strategic business leverage of IT. It is a master class (at least in retrospect) of IT understanding who and what it should be to enable a business strategy.
To paraphrase, Vogels explains that Bezo’s in the early days just wanted to be get big… fast and was willing to sacrifice technical quality (trading off sound system design). For me, a person who guides the designs of systems within systems, this on first contact is unsettling. But that is a technologist’s reaction,… that the system’s design is unappealing is in consequential in this context, since without business success, there is no system. Bezo’s visionary view was that scale, massive scale is (correctly, in hindsight) his future market advantage. Technology, well aligned to this business strategy is to get Amazon big, really big, as fast as is technically possible… the result is from Vogel’s description is a un-standardized, un- structured ad hoc collection of interacting systems, that at some point thereafter was becoming debilitating (this is several years ago now).
So, while by some measures these systems would be seen as a technical failure (there is still plenty of technical merit for them to even have been operational at that scale, just watch the documentary ‘Startup’ for example of an organization being crippled by scale and system design),… the old Amazon platform still ends up being a strategic business success. Those intentionally technical weak systems (from the enterprise and integration perspectives) are a huge success, if only because they successfully enabled the business to achieve its goal. Vogel’s goes on to explain how the systems end up being restructured via a multi-year 8 billion dollar investment, the result of which is now what is known as Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS demonstrates both business and technical excellence.
First step is to gain business clarity and clarity of focus. Obvious, and often stated, but just as difficult and oftenly poorly achieved. Before you can build it (and based on the Amazon story, know how to build it) you need to know what is important. Whatever is important should then be built into your decision making framework (see “IT Strategy – The Single Most Important Thing”) to then cascade through the team.
Once that is in place, the next step is to gain deep understanding into process and information enablement. These insights are then the catalysts for your business process re-engineering (BRP) and enablement of the business through technology.
Al-Noor (mentioned in the “Real Business of IT” book) created an approach that I am now planning to experiment with, where a business process task works with a business department/unit to deliver business process improvements (with or without technology). Basically, your business process swat team goes in and works with a business team for several weeks and optimizes process (some of those optimizations are automatable through technology).
In practice what you want to do is start to build a view of IT that is process and information oriented and at the same time laser focused on business strategy. Without this connection in place, you may have difficult delivering long range value and you run the risk of IT investments failing to deliver on their promises. If the business cannot do something valuable with its new IT capability you are building(IT enabling business performance improvement) … the IT leaders have failed to do their job of creating value from the IT investment.
IT Principles may be the single most important element of an IT Strategy
Many IT strategies fail to hit the mark, and there many factors that contribute to this outcome. Having spent time developing and surveying IT organizations in the midst of executing a strategy, one of the common challenges that I have encountered is that many team members (and even leaders in those organizations) have difficulty articulating the fundamentals of the core strategy they are executing. This is not a failure on their part; it is a failure on the part of those championing the strategy.
Dave Aron, Gartner’s analyst of the year for 2009 (at the time of writing, Gartner’s VP of Research), has suggested in his consulting, which he estimates at 80 IT Strategy reviews per year, that because people are less likely to read a strategy document, that IT principles are what he has seen have the highest impact on the organization.
In my experience, the concept certainly holds true. Principles are short, to the point and can have an implicit connection to the strategy and the environment. This makes Principles the ideal vehicle to communicate strategy with.
Here are some sample principles:
- The customer will have a ‘one organization’ experience when interacting with services
- Major data entities of interest will be made universally consumable
- Technology services will be designed to be repurposed though industry standard technologies
- If any system is removed, only the integration layer is impacted
While I was presenting a proposed IT strategy to an IT executive at a Fortune 50 bank, during the course of the presentation, he asked quite simply, “what is going away”? This threw me for a second; I had anticipated him challenging the fundamentals of the strategy and the resultant business value, but I had not seen this coming. I found out later, he asked this of everyone for everything. He then stated, ‘if you are introducing something new, something must go away.’
At the time, I thought his view as expressed in this question was overly simplified and short sighted. I was also working from the perspective of thinking I was providing an immense new value opportunity, and his narrow focus was the wrong way to view enterprise technology. In retrospect, in many ways, I was wrong. I had not grasped that he had distilled a few core principles to use to govern all decisions. What this person had done was recognize how brilliantly business cases were being ‘gamed’ at the organization (CBAs that never realized their big promises) and in one crude swoop removed the ‘gaming’ from the perspective that was important to him. He focused the ROI he cared about down to a minimum value proposition that held up for him (always). The demonstration of the success of his principle in action was that the other IT executives who worked for him would state that “if something did not go away, he would not go for it”. While I still may not be bought into the principle itself and what it means to the performance of that IT organization, I cannot argue with the success of the principle’s reach in real life as it was engrained into every IT leader’s consciousness. He was governing leaders behaviors with what seemed a crude vehicle, but upon reflection, in fact he was applying a rather complex idea in a simple and elegant way. I still struggle to find a superior way to achieve the same result so consistently. Simple is good, actually simple is great. Simple means graspable and consistently applicable (can be applied).
For one recent strategy I developed, the sophisticated two prong major focuses had several dozen supporting operational effectiveness initiatives. Some of these included metric driven management, continuous improvement, employee engagement, motivation & collaboration, layered service levels and a host of other strategic concepts that I decided to try and roll into a few simple and intentionally crude-ish principles. They would need to be highly memorable, connect and resonate with everyone (and be keyed in on the three most pressing matters):
‘don’t forget the customer, don’t waste others time, don’t make others wait’
Aesthetically, at first, my own work here strikes me as unappealing. However when considering the real goal, what is more unaesthetic than failure?
With gaining a meaningful connection to the front line, this seems a better approach than my more natural inclination “customer orientation, operational efficiency and cross functional collaboration” as strategic principles.
As Roger Martin explains in his 2010 HBR article entitled The Execution Trap, the classic strategy to execution challenge can be solved by the leaders creating a context for those downstream (team members) to make decisions with. This essentially allows the strategy to ‘cascade’ through the organization. Principles can be a large part of your cascading framework. For IT, it might be the most important part of your strategy.
Principles are potentially so useful because they are short, simple and easy to understand. They can become extremely powerful when they can implicitly apply the core objectives of a strategy by being engrained into the decision making process and thus providing intrinsic governance. The person applying the principle of “don’t’ forget the customer” doesn’t need to understand the theory behind it to apply, and this is the fundamental effectiveness of principles. In other words, you don’t need to read a book to apply this principle, after time it should become universal and just part of ‘business as usual’. The challenge here is to distill your complex strategy into the right simple principles and then get the team to live by those principles… and it is probably more difficult than it seems to get this right.
Structured Assessment of IT Capabilities and Processes with Gartner’s IT Score
If you are considering an IT Strategy, Transformation or Incremental improvement initiative you can gain considerable value by investing time in performing a structured assessment of the IT organization’s capability and process maturity. Gartner last year released their new IT score tool, which is a comprehensive survey oriented framework for assessing the IT capabilities in terms of operational efficiency, effectiveness and business enablement. Essentially, the IT leaders in your organization fill out a survey in key topic areas (e.g. Business Intelligence) and from the survey the tool generates a maturity score. The tool is essentially enterprise centric, so it does not consider aspects of the IT strategy that extend beyond the boundaries of the enterprise (arguably the most important) such as your mobile strategy for customers. Nonetheless, it can be a valuable insight generating activity.
Gartner’s IT Score – Assessment Tool
This is an outstanding tool; there is depth and sophistication underlying its simple presentation. The survey tool is rooted in best practices, so as you go through the questions you can perceive how the questions are measuring you against higher performing organizations. There is plenty of sophisticated theory under the covers and because the assessment is normalized across Gartner’s client participant organizations, you are receiving rich vendor agnostic guidance. Another very nice advantage of this approach is that if you have a Gartner membership, the assessment of your IT Organization can be self-directed. You do not necessarily need consultants to drive the assessment process (which is often the case), although there are benefits to engaging consultants such as making sense of the questions, moderation & facilitation and accelerating the path from survey completion to strategic initiatives.
Here is a sample question (e.g. Vendor Management Area):
And finally their maturity model (from Enterprise Architecture score):
I want to be sensitive to the proprietary nature of their tool (so I will not provide more details around it), but it generates a generalized set of recommendations and considerations based on your level and gives you a clear path and reference materials to pursue maturation. Unless you have a highly mature practice (Level 4/5) I would recommend engaging experts to help you enhance your capabilities once you have completed the surveys.
The Major Assessment Areas for IT Capabilities
The tool provides an IT assessment of each the current major capability areas, including:
Positive Educational Side-effect
An interesting positive side effect for the team members taking the survey is that answering the questions can be intrinsically educational. In some cases the information being presented in the survey is foreign (e.g BAM), but since the survey taker is repeatedly exposed to the same topics in different questions for different capability areas during the survey, they are attempting to answer the question (applying knowledge in context) to determine their level against best practices on a question per question basis. This can help evolve mindsets (which I have seen in practice) because the survey taker is being presented the information in an way that is not intrusive or prescriptive, so they are given the opportunity to make the conceptual leap for themselves (i.e. from what is BAM? to we are at this level, I would like to be here, how do we get there?). If you are not a metric driven organization, and your IT leaders do take the survey, they will repeatedly hear about metric driven performance management in a context they understand,… the topic is bound to illicit at least curiosity.
Some Recommendations about Completing the Surveys
Assessing IT Capabilities – Another view
While there is not a tool driven way to assess the external and key infrastructure capabilities, the business and IT organizations should collectively develop a perspective on how well some of these capabilities are currently meeting the needs and how well they anticipate them being able to be adapted to meet future needs. In IBM’s 2011 ‘Voice of the CIO’ report, a survey of a global group of public and private CIOs, the following was the surveyed capability set. This is a good baseline for both internal and external capabilities from a technology trend perspective.
Figure out what you are trying to accomplish, and then think about how maturing the capabilities and processes in any of the major areas will enable the organization to achieve its business objectives. IT Capabilities assessment is part of the IT Strategy puzzle (current state of IT capabilities), and in my opinion the easiest part of the puzzle to complete. The more challenging aspects which are business model driven IT strategy (building business oriented IT objectives, gaining alignment to strategy for IT to execute and digitization of process/core foundation) and Value Driven IT (creating a higher performing IT organization) still remain.
Re-Oriented Balanced Scorecards & Strategy Maps for Information Technology (IT)
During the past few years of performing IT Strategy consulting, one challenge I had to overcome was clearly linking the business strategy with the IT Strategy and then presenting the IT strategy concepts to executive leaders who are less familiar (and less interested) in any technology oriented value proposition. If is not external (e.g. customer) value, business performance improving or revenue oriented value (top/bottom line impact) they will rightly question the merits of the concepts. Value needs to be in business terms. Over the past few years, there has been a lot of momentum around developing clear linking between IT initiatives and the creation of business value. For example, if IT can show (normally through metrics) that an IT initiative directly increased business performance, such as increase in revenue, IT wins… big.
I began using the balanced scorecard because of its prevalence in large organizations and because it neatly organizes concepts to value areas (i.e. customer perspective) so that stakeholders can more easily link the business strategy to IT’s execution. As an added advantage, the outcome orientation of the Balanced Scorecard lends itself to an actionable and measurable roadmap of initiatives. As a very positive but unexpected side effect, I have found that it helps make large and complex strategies more quickly and easily digestible. I spend nearly as much time now on ‘simple clear value, easily digestible, best path to adoption’ work as I do on ‘right strategy’ construction. This particular (soft) understanding advantage is critical to gaining buy in and subsequent funding and adoption. This is especially important since your window of opportunity to successfully deliver your message is so small and the stakes are so high.
The Balanced Scorecard and Strategy Maps
Business thought leaders Kaplan and Norton are famous for their work in business strategy, and probably most famous for developing the Balanced Scorecard and the complimentary Strategy Maps. Even though there is plenty criticism for these approaches, the strategic insights in their books are outstanding and both the Balanced Scorecard and Strategy Maps are excellent tools when they fit the problem and are applied skillfully (as could be said of any tool). The Balanced Scorecard remains one of the best methods available for managing strategy and linking execution outcomes (both financial and non-financial performance).
For more information on the balance score and strategy maps refer to this article and its referenced materials.
The suggested approach is to use your parent Organization’s balance scorecard to link into your IT Organization’s balance scorecard. You can then plug in your IT Metrics and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) into the IT Scorecard, resulting in top to bottom traceability. If your parent organization does not have a balanced scorecard (or equivalent strategy representation), you can either work with the business leaders to develop one, or use the strategy map format to capture a representative snapshot of the current understanding. As a point of warning, there really should be some linkage, and even though there are other ways such as business value management and linking to bottom line measures (P&L) which on their own are excellent, those are complimentary methods, best used to support rationalization and post implementation value assessment activities. For strategy presentation and management, you want to have clear strategic linkage in a language and presentation that people know and understand. Even in cases where the strategy is only understood informally, I have found success with this approach.
According to the method authors (Kaplan, Norton) one of the driving forces behind the creation of the balanced scorecard was to introduce non-financial measures to business performance management. This was necessary to adapt to the changes in business dynamics in the 90s and has become a staple of modern business management and project prioritization and rationalization.
There is only so much a person can digest during a meeting or presentation, so if you can get your audience to skip expending brain power on understanding the format of the content and just focus on the value… you are ahead. If you also align the terminology to their world, and the advantages are focused on improving their businesses then you have a platform for success.
Here is the graphic from Gartner’s Business Value Model, which is a very strong approach for managing a transformational strategy once it is created and bought into. The strategy ‘sell’ itself may be better suited during the presentation and buy-in phases to trend toward the executive oriented formats in order to show clearly aligned value creation.
The IT Organization scorecard in effect bridges the Organizational Strategy and the IT Organization’s Performance and Outcomes.
IT Scorecard Format
The standard balanced scorecard value perspectives (Customer, Financial, Process and Learning & Growth) are commonly used and in some cases augmented to suit the particular needs of an organization. These perspectives are very inline with an organization’s strategy and value creation categories however they do not align as well with and IT organization’s strategy or execution. For example, team members in an IT organization might be more focused on application support than then on increasing revenue. By changing the format, and using different IT oriented perspectives, the effectiveness and relevance of the IT scorecard increases.
Here is a sample strategy map that will suit most IT organizations (mentioned here), which is similar in theme to the format I use.
What you should note is how the top to bottom linkage is achieved and if you were to follow the process through to execution, you have traceability to strategic direction as well as traceability to strategically aligned outcomes. It is all digestible on first sight, although overcoming reasonable skepticism and building momentum behind positive transformative approaches will require a lot more than just a well organized presentation of concepts.
Performing a Technology Capability Opportunity Assessment
Which technology products and capabilities best support your business model and operating needs? Based on your functional areas and major processes, have you optimized the commercial off the shelf (COTS) products in your portfolio? Do you know everything that is out there and what might serve you best in the areas your organization is not specialized or heavily invested in?
You have got it right for the most part if you are a mature technology organization and your business is running effectively on top of IT. From my experiences with very large, sophisticated and successful IT organizations the chances are that there is still a tool that could serve you really well that you currently do not have in place (and that no one on your senior team has on their radar).
These capability gaps probably occur quite simply because there is just so much out there. Between the internal leadership and internal and external influencers there are gaps in the IT organization’s frame of reference. It is worth at some point to baseline your capabilities against a relevant reference model to give your team opportunity areas to explore for your IT development roadmap. Expanding your frame of reference, should improve the quality of the decisions made.
Relevant Baseline Reference
This can be done by first selecting a relevant reference baseline. If you are looking to evaluate yourself against the major industry standard product stack, that can be easily done by using the technology (mega) vendor Oracle’s product portfolio as your reference.
Most mature technology practices that are effectively supporting competitive businesses have capability investments of varying degrees depending on their priorities in each of these areas. This stack could be a first level baseline for major business facing technology capabilities. The baseline could be used in the form of questions, ‘How are we handling our channels (Unified Workplace) now and are we setup for the device driven future?’, ‘How effectively is our business served by our BI and BAM capabilities (Information Aggregation & Analysis)?’ ‘How well are our cloud and grid strategies playing out?’ Ideally you would have a strategic and platform centric, platform being your integrated enterprise foundation, answer for each box and related plan.
There are various other ways to baseline and measure the maturity of enterprise, including maturity models from Gartner, CISR, FEA, NASCIO, SEI/CMM and others that provide a step-wise approach to optimizing a dimension of IT measured through maturity increases. A guiding set of industry maturity models coupled with a continuous improvement process framework (i.e. Six Sigma, Lean, COBIT, ITIL, etc.) is an effective way towards systemic incremental improvement.
Regardless of where you are at now, you may want to pick areas to explore and consider what might be the potential for opportunities in any particular area. There is a common procurement style approach for capability acquisition when it relates to a major focus area. It starts with business oriented identification of the opportunity, ‘We really need better BI to inform our decision making speed. If we could go to real-time decisions instead of overnight analytics we could dynamically adapt our customer offering’. The team surveys the options, and the conclusion is arrived at that it doesn’t make sense to build it, and there are plenty of products in this space, so let’s go to the market. The process might play out as ‘Let’s buy the Gartner magic quadrant for BI Platforms’, then a RFP (request for proposal) is sent out to short-listed vendors and so the procurement process goes.
This is an effective process for an opportunity that you understand, but what if you don’t know that the opportunity exists. Say, for example that there is technical capability that serves functions outside of your core business processes and you and your team are unaware that there are better ways of doing things. For example, imagine that a team is unaware that there is a more effective way to manage your development processes end to end (application lifecycle) than your have in place now. You obviously cannot consider the gains of a approach that you are not aware exists.
When doing a bottom up technical capability optimization opportunity assessment, you want to consider the largest number of relevant options, which maximizes what I call the ‘solution surface area’. The simple method that follows was born out of my own need and desire to consider every option before presenting an IT strategy and roadmap to my clients. I was surprised to find out that now, just a few years after first using this technique it has benefited me in many ways I did not expect including giving me background in problem spaces and domains I had not previously encountered as well giving me high level preparation for product discussions with anyone about any product (I at a minimum understand why a product exists and based on the product segment where it fits in to the enterprise).
The suggestion is to make a small investment into an awareness building exercise that could positively inform your strategic technology planning. This is a bottom up opportunity identification approach, and even if you undertake just a cursory skim of all the technologies available, your technology organization’s frame of reference will grow, which can only improve your decision making.
If you are responsible for IT Strategic Planning you should consider this approach as a way of broadening your technology organization’s ‘solution surface area’, which is the number of solution options your team is aware of.
The approach suggested here is to transcend your IT organization’s frame of reference and perform a technical capability awareness and opportunity assessment. In essence, have a look at everything out there and for each relevant product, consider if your organization could benefit, if it might be viable, and develop a list of potential high value, high impact opportunities to pursue.
Step by Step
In order to do this as suggested you will need a membership with one of the major IT industry market research firms. The approach is straightforward,
- Build an aggregate list of products & capabilities
- Assess each for its opportunity level
- Plan around your findings
The exercise will take a small team a few weeks to get high-level coverage. If you have a Gartner membership, your small investment in effort (people’s time) could be repaid tenfold with several high value, high impact, and (and maybe even low disruption) opportunities. Disruption in this case would mean that there is not a capability in place performing this job currently that needs to be displaced (if it is business facing, this factor is much different that it if it is just IT organization facing technology).
Build an Aggregate List of Products & Capabilities
If you take all of the Magic Quadrants and put them in a list, you have the most comprehensive listing of IT product capabilities available (that I know of). From this list, you can then start your assessment.
Gartner provides a list of all of the Magic Quadrants here
The approximately two hundred items end up being a comprehensive baseline for an enterprise and most importantly a very powerful opportunity assessment framework. I chose to then filter (in grey) the items that had no relevance to organization that I was engaged to do strategic planning for.
I then went through each magic quadrant/market scope with a team and identified (for this particular organization) what opportunities existed, with special attention in our case for high value opportunities that were not very disruptive. It may be worth noting that for your organization this simple format may need to be evolved (e.g. relevance per segment of the organization) or changed completely. In the context of this client organization, this was simple and effective path to reach our intended goal.
I put converted the filtered list into an assessment spreadsheet.
Assess Each for Its Opportunity Level
The objective here is to pull some high impact candidates to the surface, so for my purposes, a simple qualification (or disqualification) was all that was required. Here we see in the example that Automated Test Suites are very relevant in this environment. It would be a high value opportunity with little disruption and currently the process is not managed through an existing technical capability.
Plan Around Your Findings
If you have performed the exercise than you have achieved good surface area coverage of the relevant IT industry products and potential capabilities that can now be explored as opportunities. Depending on how your organization pursues opportunities for new technologies, portfolio and enterprise architecture, the next step is to do some further assessment and prioritization to turn an interesting technology into a potentially beneficial one.