Stop looking at your SLAs, think business.

This post was originally shared on January 30th, 2015

“My SLAs are green, so as far as I’m concerned, everything is OK.” How often have we heard that phrase while struggling to take orders[JE1] ? [JE2] IT has for a long time been a rather mysterious appendix to the business, not always realizing it was the business who, in the end, allowed IT to play its role. There have always been people in IT that understood the importance of supporting the business in any circumstances. But were they the majority? Definitely not.

But today, with the digital enterprise slowly penetrating most businesses, IT has to change to continue adding value to the corporation and its bottom line. Just measuring the uptime of infrastructure or applications is no longer enough. What counts is the uptime of business processes. Frankly, having all SLAs “green” does not help if the enterprise is unable to take orders or ship products. The money won’t come in, and that is what makes the company tick. Nothing else.

Technologies and approaches exist to measure the way your IT environment stacks up in support of the business. We will not discuss those, but rather what you need to be doing to increase the business-focus of your organization.

Start by understanding your business processes

Before you can really understand the implications of something happening to an application to the business, you have to identify what business process it supports. Leading enterprises have clearly defined enterprise architectures, nicely describing how business operations are executed. That is a tremendous starting point. But let’s be honest, most companies do not have that, or if they have a version, it is not up to date.

If you do not have an enterprise architecture, you can often start from an industry framework, such as the supply chain operational reference model for the manufacturing industry, or eTOM (Enhanced Telecom Operations Map) for the telco industry. These models will describe, in a generic way, how key business process should be executed and often add to them the description of the KPIs to be measured. This way, you get not only a framework of your business processes, but also ways to measure whether the operations are executed satisfactorily for your company.

What business process do you start with?

You’re not going to implement this for all your business processes at the same time. Why? Because it leads to a totally different way to look at IT, it will take time to implement, and it requires a mind shift in the IT operations. Indeed, the focus shifts from technology to service. And that is an important shift, one that will take time. So, what you want to do is take one process, identify the team that is involved with that process and start the management of change process with them. They will become your champions as you move forward. Thus, it’s important to choose both the process and the team you assign to making this first change. Don’t take the most difficult process, but make sure it is a relevant and visible one. Doing so enables quick success at the start to motivate the teams.

What support does IT delivers to the business process?

Once you have defined the process you’re going after, it is time to link the Business and IT. What role does IT’s applications have in the process? Which applications are affected? And what is the business looking for? Put both teams in one room and have them walk through the process. Allow them to describe what they experience, both from a business and IT perspective. Build a cross-functional team so you have both perspectives reflected in one group.

In that process, you’ll hear frustrations, you’ll identify misunderstandings, but at the same time you’ll develop a joint understanding of what needs to be done. You may realize that your applications need to become more agile, which may start-up some side discussions on building agility in your development teams. Recognize the issue, but leave that separate, because doing everything in one project increases time and risk of failures.

Define successful operations

Once you know your business process, once you have identified the applications that support it, the next question is: when will my operations run smoothly? Remember the KPIs I mentioned earlier. It may be possible to use those, as a possible way for the business teams to have a way to measure success. Agree on what a successful operation of the business process actually means. Define how to measure and set goals. And then, measure the base case. Often you will have to do this manually as the metrics are not in place. That’s fine. It may take some effort. Having a base case is important though as it will allow you to demonstrate results and progress.

Describe the process and link the applications

Now describe the process, identify the steps and their links, and establish which application is supporting which process step. How is the application invoked (human interaction, API)? What data is exchanged in the process?

If your process is complex, you may want to break it up in a number of logical components. Identify measurements for each of those components and establish base case and target values. Make sure the sum of your target values add up to your overall target. This will allow you, if you do not reach your overall target, to identify in what section of your business process the issues are located. It will facilitate the analysis.

Set-up the measurement

Now you know how the process executes. You know how to measure. It’s time to put the measurement probes in place to get the actual numbers. This may require you to add data collection functions to your applications, or to establish ways to identify a section of the business process is executed. You probably have tools that visualize and report on your IT measurements today. See whether these tools can also report on this new type of measurement you put in place. That is the simplest way of doing. Alternatively, just start by a simple and crude way to visualize the information. There will always be time later to get something better. What counts early on is to understand what happens, realize when something goes wrong and address the issue. Again, you want to be successful quickly.

Analyze the results

Run the business process for a little while and then start looking at the results. What is the average and how close is it to the target? Also important: what is the variance? How much difference is there between the best and the worst numbers? You want to get the process under control, so making sure you hit your objective is important, but getting the process repeatable and predictable is probably as important.

When things go wrong, what is it that went wrong? Through the analysis of the section results you will quickly understand where to look. Go back to the business people in the team to understand what happened so you can get it corrected. And once you are where you want to be, don’t forget to celebrate success.

It’s all about measuring.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” said Dave Packard years ago. This saying is still true. Edward Deming revolutionized the industry through the use of measurement. But what is key, is to measure the right thing- which is where the business comes in. Ultimately, it is the business processes that will deliver the results of the enterprise. It’s those that have to be managed. And yes, we need to make sure applications and infrastructure are up and running or the business would not be able to operate. But what is important is not just that they are running, but that they deliver what is required to support the business operations. And here we’re back to square one. Measure the business impact of IT.

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