Surprisingly, the majority of organisations — large or small, national or international — are still trying to get to grips with their Information Technology. All too often, IT is still a block to realising business strategies. Business leaders are often unable to do what they believe best for their enterprises; they make massive investments in new systems, or outsource huge parts of their business in the hope that they will then be able to achieve what they want — but all too often to no avail.
Business enterprises are surrounded by suppliers whose whole raison d’être is to keep producing new solutions, technologies and products — all claiming to be the perfect answer. Some such solutions address quite narrow needs and therefore have to be integrated to other solutions. Alternatively there are so called integrated ERP solutions which rarely are truly integrated, or are so complex that they simply cannot be made to work effectively.
Almost without exception, each of these solutions addresses generic requirements that more often than not suit the supplier not the purchaser. Everyone knows that “one size doesn’t fits all” — but this rule is usually forgotten when it comes to IT. This situation is not helped by many IT departments and service providers using over-complex methodologies for defining needs and implementing IT systems. This results in communication between business users and IT providers becoming subject to a time consuming process that, in the name of making safe progress, actually blocks progress.
It is no surprise therefore that outsourcing IT provision or back office business operations, or both, is seductive. But, unless done very carefully, this replaces business problems with uncomfortable contractual relationships; certainly, it does not provide an instant agile solution or help to make IT happen quickly.
Quite simply, IT is a supplier-led market where business customers mostly fit in around their IT suppliers, rather than vice versa. As a result, IT often doesn’t happen unless under expert guardianship.
No two situations are the same — some enterprises realise they are struggling to make IT happen early on in their strategic cycle, others only realise when they are in the middle of a failing implementation that threatens terminal damage. Whatever the start-point, the three keys to success are:
n Objective planning: it is virtually impossible to make IT happen without an incisive implementation plan; you must identify what your business priorities and needs truly are.
n Pragmatic execution: it is vital not to get subsumed by complex IT methodologies. You must identify your business needs, match appropriate IT solutions clearly to them and rigorously verify the fit.
n Change management: and finally it is as important to work with the staff who will use the new systems as manage the suppliers who are providing them. IT implementation must be driven by the customer not the supplier.
Your aim is to ensure that you achieve the value you want, and expect, from your IT.
The key to success comes from objective pragmatic planning followed by focused implementation and change management that ensures IT really delivers business benefits to your enterprise. To maximise the outcome and make IT really happen, an experienced ‘business architect’ should oversee and manage the work, rather than ceding this role to the ‘system builder’ who clearly has a different, and usually biased, agenda.
Ideally, your business architect should be independent and sit alongside the business customer and oversee the work of the IT supplier, without any favour or bias, to ensure that both work effectively together to achieve success. This is the most effective approach. After all, who would turn to a builder to design and build their new home for them? An architect would be consulted first and then asked to manage the construction.
Go back to basics. Whenever anything changes (and this applies to virtually any situation that you can imagine) there is a period when the apparent functionality drops. This may happen simply through lack of familiarity or because there is a genuine drop. The diagram to the right highlights the effect by mapping functionality and fit over time:
Your aim is to get back to the same level of functionality as quickly as possible, because during this period, you are wasting resource. Only when you have got back to that level, can you start to add value to your business. In order to make IT happen, for example when implementing a new system, you need either to delay the closure of the old system whilst customising the new in parallel, or ensure that the new system offers virtually the same functionality.
Even if you achieve this, there will still be an apparent drop, simply as people get used to using the new system. You can mitigate this through focused training so that people become familiar with the new system before they have to use it.
Where else should you focus your effort? An even more basic issue is ensuring you have the right systems for your needs. People are easily seduced by the sales hype and sizzle of a new system without knowing exactly what their functional requirement is. Too often systems are purchased because they are excitingly different, not because they meet a defined need. The way to address this is simple: ensure you define your strategic needs properly and rationally — always be ready to challenge and validate your needs before turning to the market for new supplier offerings. Have a good robust strategic plan.
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Patrick Chapman is an independent professional management consultant specialising in business transformation and process improvement coupled to the preparation of practical strategic systems plans and following them through to full implementation. His 30 year career in management consultancy includes senior roles with three major consulting practices, where he has advised and worked for a wide cross-section of organisations in the Private and Public Sectors ranging from major plcs to small private businesses, particularly in the service and manufacturing industries, local and central government departments, as well as a number of the UK’s leading Not-for-Profit organisations. He is a Certified Management Consultant and Fellow of the