THINKTANK: Business vs IT: A consultant's perspective

THINKTANK: Business vs IT: A consultant's perspective

Working closely with organisations attempting to move forward with portal projects provides some fascinating insights. One of the most interesting and perplexing is what I call the business versus IT dynamic.

In essence this dynamic is about the fundamental conflict between the business driving demand to meet short-term priorities and IT struggling to plan ahead and provide the correct organisational infrastructure to meet future demands. Nothing is making this rift more apparent than the evolution (or revolution) that is e-business!

In my experience the best, and most effective, organisations are those that are able to get these conflicting demands working in harmony.

Let's first describe the players and their varying perspectives and describe how each role is typically played out in most organisations.

Firstly the business perspective (and by ‘business' I mean executives and managers in externally focused business units, rather than at CEO level). The business is at the coalface - there's no doubt about it. They're working directly with customers, employees and suppliers and know the issues and inefficiencies of the non e-enabled status quo better than anyone in the business. After all, they created the various processes and work with them on a daily basis.

Executives in the business are formally measured on their ability to make ongoing improvements in the way things are done - driving growth in revenue, profitability and efficiency. And now more than ever they have to do this in a short period of time, with clear demonstration of real dollar results. Payback for the organisation must be immediate, implementation rapid, and results impressive.

The pressure to leverage technology to reduce costs and inefficiencies for quick wins is compelling. But it must be done fast and at low cost for the short-term business case to stack up.

The IT perspective is somewhat different. IT see the business as trigger-happy, and are almost dangerous in their enthusiasm for quick wins. After all, IT have been in the game long enough to know that a quick win usually means a lot of re-work and headaches fixing all the infrastructure elements that weren't thought through during the initial rush of blood - scalability, processes, change management, workflow, reporting, disaster recovery and more.

Of course, IT people are just as excited about the potential of online technology to transform the way the organisation works as their business counterparts, they just see it differently. From the vantage point of a central position, IT can see the bright lights going off all around the business - they can feel the groundswell, and they know that e-business is the future. So they want to plan . . . and they definitely do not want the business initiating technology projects that don't fit into the future e-business architecture they are carefully crafting. IT can see the commonality in the business cases coming forward and are keen to capture the economies of scale and maintainability for the benefit of the enterprise as a whole.

So . . . what comes first? The spontaneous business demand that creates the groundswell which justifies IT's planning and infrastructure? Or is it IT first providing the vision, education and infrastructure to the business to e-enable processes, information and communications?

Despite what each would prefer from their own perspective - moving forward in tandem appears the only way for this to work. IT must move forward aggressively with the underlying tools and processes to support an enterprise strategy - but the business must be free to experiment with the new technology, up to a point. Phase one projects under $200K seem to be the most cost-effective way for the organisation to try out new models, test stakeholder and user reactions to initially simple online portals, and then evaluate different ways of structuring and presenting the offer. These real-world initiatives develop valuable knowledge and experience of ‘how things work in practice' and confirm business case assumptions. They may not be scalable or conform to the enterprise's future infrastructure direction in phase one, but they provide valuable input and reality checking to IT's holistic vision - ensuring the future strategy is grounded in tangible business reality.

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