COMPUTER BUSINESS REVIEW

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Issue Date: November 2003 (es)

Bridging the gap between IT and business: is it possible?

November 2003
Andrew Seldon, Editor, eSecure

We asked our panel of experts how, from the business point of view, the credibility and trust gap between business and IT could be overcome.

A recent analyst report stated that when asking business and technology staff what they thought their objectives and focus areas were, there is about a 90% difference in alignment between what IT teams consider their focus should be and the focus areas of their managers.
Andrew Seldon, Editor, eSecure
Andrew Seldon, Editor, eSecure
The analysts said the reason for the misplacement was that messages from management were lost as they were transferred down the ranks to the trenches. They also said that staff were generally not aware of what their particular jobs were in the greater scheme of things and what contribution they were making to the corporation. Many were stuck in an activities rut, resulting in them losing perspective of the real goal of what they were doing.
The second series in the Technews Insight round tables was held recently, focusing on the issue of bridging the gap between IT and business - if it is indeed possible to bridge this gap. We asked our technology-focused readers for their opinions on the changes required from IT's perspective and reported on their responses in Network Times; in this article we focus on some of what business had to say about the issue; a full transcript is available from Technews.
The first area of discussion that business highlighted was the reasons for the lack of credibility. First on the list was Y2K. Many business people are resentful of what they perceive as the swindle that was Y2K. Vendors sold horror stories about how the world was going to end if the problem was not addressed and billions were spent in trying to avoid the global collapse. And then nothing happened.
The result was that business resented having the wool pulled over its eyes and did not want to listen to IT again. This tendency was further boosted by the dotcom bust. Here we had a time when IT ruled and everyone was afraid to tell technologists off or deny them anything because of the possible consequences.
Then came the great ERP spend at the end of the last century. Massive spend, massive projects, massive profits for the vendor and sky-high IT skills costs, and very little to customers in return.
Management trusted IT speak before and saw huge amounts of money leaving their companies with no associated return in value or business growth. The question asked was, and still is: "What did we spend our money on?"
Were business processes simpler, more efficient, more streamlined, did they deliver better information or even add a percentage point to revenue growth? Very few IT leaders can give a positive answer to those questions.
The bottom line is that IT must assist in revenue generation. Therefore, the business process takes priority, with technology filling the gap and playing a supporting role to make the goals of the corporation a reality.
Pause for effect
So where is business in the great divide. No company can simply leave their IT systems standing for years. Eventually someone will have to spend money on new technology.
The consensus seems to be that management needs to take stock of where their companies are in terms of technology and its alignment with business. They put the brakes on to survey the landscape - as it were - before deciding on the way forward. In this process many are realising their corporations are overflowing with expensive bits of hardware and software that serves no purpose and is only likely to demand more attention and money in the long term.
Many also realise they have silos of relevant information that would be invaluable in decision making, but there does not seem to be a way to get that information into a combined, usable format. Of course, there are plenty of vendors out there offering to assist them, but business is not really in the mood to listen.
And when it comes to suppliers, vendors and the channel at large, management generally has serious reservations about these companies and people. The overwhelming belief is that IT should handle the vendors because they come to see management with the goal of selling their latest offerings no matter what the customer actually requires.
Our executives were also of the opinion that suppliers did not make the effort to understand the industry they operated in and any relevant solutions that had been implemented in other industries which could be useful to customers. They offer a one-size-fits-all deal, and this was probably the biggest bugbear - suppliers rarely take the time to learn about their customers' business: where they are, where they are going and what they need to get them there.
The lingo of business
It is often said that IT and business speak different languages. That may be true, but the point of technology is to support business and the gathering of revenue. The language IT needs to talk therefore is English and money. Business is the focus and IT will support it with a solution (not IT has a solution so let us invent a business problem).
In addition, the two sides are actually one side. They both work for the same boss and should have the same ultimate goals. If that is the reality then collaboration should be second nature and the teams should be focusing on developing better business processes and procedures and getting the job done.
Often getting the job done better requires a solution that does not involve the latest technology or an 18-month, million rand project. IT needs to have the self-confidence to admit that bleeding edge is not needed and provide working solutions nonetheless.
As well as collaborating on faster returns and other ways IT and business can narrow the gap, there is also the simple fact that IT is a support function and, just like finance or HR, needs to earn respect and credibility by delivering what business needs. Part of this process involves the IT leadership reporting directly to the CEO and board level. And naturally this will not happen unless the technology department has delivered value to the business and is seen as a core, reliable part of the organisation.
ROI and TCO is where the buck stops
All one hears about from vendors and product suppliers these days is return on investment (ROI) and reductions in total cost of ownership (TCO). Being good sales people, they know these are issues companies are focusing on and therefore deliver exactly what is required - or at least rewrite their marketing material to reflect that.
Today's cheque-signing business leader wants definite TCO and ROI benefits, but they want it in measurable chunks, ie, show them the money and IT needs to be the prime mechanism of delivery. An interesting point highlighted by one participant in the discussion was that it is not always possible to take vanilla TCO and ROI calculations developed in First-World countries and apply them as is in South Africa.
We have differences that make this market fairly unique and these need to be taken into account when developing IT solutions for business problems.
At the end of the day, companies are looking for IT leaders that are business people, but are definitely not looking for business clones. In every organisation those innovators and people who find technical solutions for everything - whether needed or not - are as needed to push the company forward as are the practical, level-headed business-process focused spoilsports who take innovations and make them work in favour of the business in the real world.
It is all about cooperation. If both parties pool their strengths and work together for the benefit of the organisation as a whole, everyone wins and the business/IT gap we are now very aware of will fade away in record time.
Have your say: Did we miss anything? Are we off topic or missing the point completely? Comment on your own experience in bridging the credibility gap or any of the topics raised in this article by e-mailing andrew@technews.co.za.


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