Are IT/ICT (herein just IT) departments in organisations blockers or enablers?
By Tony Elson
I’m writing this piece because of an increasing frustration I have in dealing with IT departments embedded within organisations that are clearly not as enabling as they should/could be. And I know I’m not the only one.
I understand why some IT departments do what they do. For example, they can’t have a wild west operation where business units with specific needs, just go out and get what they want and install it on their laptop or PC (or even a server if they were allowed). This is especially true for organisations that have full enterprise systems such as SAP, Microsoft, Maximo or Esri, or a mix of core enterprise systems.
Having any number of solutions and applications outside of the core can create all sorts of headaches – from capacity and provisioning (Cloud or on-premise), to database, data management and data standards, or just general governance. There are generally good rules in place for organisations of scale to manage rogue (but generally good) intentions.
However, I have two major frustrations. And essentially, these frustrations sort of contradict each other – or are at least at the opposed ends of a spectrum.
First, is when IT break their own corporate rules and allow a rogue system to enter the game, when their own enterprise implementations are well and truly capable of doing the job.
There could be any number of reasons as to why an interloper has managed to get a wedge in the door such as:
- internal support is lacking due to capacity and / or capability;
- a good sales job;
- someone has a favourite;
- a lack of understanding of the capabilities of the enterprise solution already in place;
- someone doesn’t care about the corporate structures (which are in place to create at least a known level playing field for internal and external providers).
But the greatest frustration in this instance, is that IT don’t always necessarily look into the architecture of this interloper in any depth, coupled with the problem that it can fall onto others outside of IT (i.e. business unit SME’s) to deal with getting that understanding. Exacerbating this, it is even worse if they don’t understand the architecture and capability of their own corporate systems!
Whether IT are too busy or not, it is part of their job to assess systems, applications and solutions and make recommendations to the powers that be. Especially at the enterprise architect level.
The main issue here, is not that they’ve gone outside their own processes or rules (which is still a significant problem), but that they have failed to understand their own systems, or the new proposed systems, and the potential subsequent impacts.
Which leads to my second frustration. It is when IT does their job, but to a level where they do it to justify their roles within the organisation.
Case in point; we recently submitted a proposal (which was accepted by the business unit with the requirement, and the project sponsor). The price was agreed, as was the scope and the schedule. Of course this had to pass through IT. Next minute, IT want to do a business case – which had already been done and approved. What they needed to do was an evaluation as to how this would fit in with or compromise their IT environment (see first example above). So, because of the internal costing structures, tens of thousands of dollars were added to the cost of the project.
Second ‘next minute’, we are all in a meeting with an IT program manager, a project manager, an enterprise architect, two solution architects, a data / database person, a security person and an IT SME. So, each was to have input into the business case. In our view, an evaluation of our architecture with a few key or pointed questions, could have alleviated any concerns or questions raised.
Yes, there would probably have been some changes at our end and, yes the cost could have increased (or maybe decreased but we’ll never know) – but not significantly. Due to overall cost, PM and business case bloat, the project was killed.
In both of these examples, IT were not enabling in any way shape or form. They have either not supported or understood innovation, or just said yes too easily without doing due diligence. Somewhere in the middle is where the sweet spot is.
Our organisation has absolutely no issue with following process. But some processes are antiquated, inefficient, and not geared to deliver solutions or innovation. These problems don’t just exist in the public sector as one might expect, but they also exist in the private sector. And the crux of the problem, is that CTOs / COOs / executive management in general, and even CEO’s, have to rely on their own experts to make the calls and recommendations.
What is worse though, is when you get the above examples in combination with senior / executive managers, who just do not care. We’ve seen some cases where IT have become so powerful, they decide what the business wants. I’m a firm believer that software should not drive the business.
There is plenty of literature stating that IT departments need to, and are, aligning with the organisation’s strategic objectives, and that executives need to stop treating IT departments as a cost centre that are a drain or sieve on corporate budgets (see second example above). IT should really be thinking about helping the end-users and business units derive value from existing technology investments, whilst still being open to innovation.
One of the questions is, do IT staff have the capacity to do this?
Quite often IT staff are bogged down in business-as-usual tasks (e.g. monitoring or dealing with performance issues of servers, responding to complaints, or generally keeping the lights on), so how can IT really add-value (not maintain value) to an organisation? IT staff I’m sure, would love to be utilising the potential of technology to bolster the business.
Personally, I think a dearth of quality Business Analysts with a technical background (or techies with really good soft skills and analytical skills), is part of the problem. Quality BA’s are good at identifying problems, opportunities and enabling collaboration. And this is the key – quality BA’s are gold. Collaboration with technical knowledge, between IT and business units (who, for arguments sake, we assume know their business), will create a much greater chance of success when implementing IT tools and solutions. Collaboration, or consultation in ignorance is not really collaboration at all. So yes, the right people are critical.
Other issues arise from poor timing, such as identifying new innovative and enabling technology, or understanding the innovation capable of existing technology investment, but then doing nothing until the strategic value is gone, or is less than what it could have been. Having internal knowledge of these opportunities in depth is an advantage for sure, but also the benefits of utilising strategic technology partners should not be ignored.
Now there are plenty of examples where IT are enablers. I can think of one example where a corporate organisation is nothing but enabling. These people understand their business – but more importantly, they understand the organisation’s vision and goals. Having leadership that demands fit-for-purpose solutions, built on their own enterprise is a huge enabler in itself. Having IT staff working to that vision is also a huge enabler. My examples above are of where IT do not really buy into a vision, or their leadership doesn’t demand that they do, or there is just sub-par leadership.
In a Computer World article back in 2015 [Patrick Thibodeau, July 9, 2015], it was stated that IT departments were starting to be viewed positively in terms of adding value to the business. In some instances we are seeing that (see my more positive example above). In others, we are still stuck in the cost centre / job protection / patch protection mode. The latter of these two modes of operation needs to be eliminated. I’d like to think that overall, IT are turning the ship around to a more positive direction.
My own organisation wants to deliver world class solutions. And generally we do, despite the constraints of the above. But there needs to be a cultural shift in some organisations. Technology is moving at an exponential rate. Some IT departments are moving at a non-exponential rate. They at least need to be somewhere in the middle.
– Tony Elson, Co-Director, GBS