Be responsive to the business, is cloud the solution?

In my previous blog entry, I asked the question: “Are you going to cloud for the right reason”. I highlighted cost as one of the main reasons companies look at cloud. But is cost really diminishing? That remains to be seen. To benefit you need to manage the utilization of virtual servers rather closely, making sure you turn them off when you don’t use them. How many companies are really doing that?

In a world where information technology is core and center to deliver products and services to clients, and where most employees have some understanding of technology, IT needs to fundamentally change its approach to remain relevant. Speed being of the essence, how can IT respond and support the business in addressing the ever changing environment in which they operate. How can IT enable the business to react fast when it sees a new opportunity or is being disrupted?

In my mind, three barriers are slowing IT down drastically and they are:

  • The perception that IT is only a supporting function
  • IT’s own processes leading to thorough but lengthy development cycles
  • The time it take to source infrastructure.
  • Let’s look at each of these in more details.

IT as a supporting function

IT is often seen as one of those supporting functions to which you tell your needs and they deliver. That’s actually the theory. Because IT is kept at arm’s length of the business, IT teams do not always have a good understanding of what is required from a business perspective and why what is being asked is relevant. This often leads to discrepancies in expectations.

clip_image002I know of many IT departments working extremely hard to respond to all the requests of the business, without convincing their business colleagues of being effective. There are two reasons for that, the lack of understanding of the true business needs and no prioritization.

IT is not involved in setting the directions, defining the new business models and identifying the functionality required. When they get made aware of what is needed, it is often without the associated background information. In an ever more digital world this is a killer. IT can no longer be a supporting function but should be an integral part of the strategy definition and process design.

To address this, I would suggest IT to put a couple elements in place. First, a business literate interface that works directly with the business, ideally as part of the business. In the old days these people were called business analysts. Maybe it is time to reinstate them. Whether they are funded by the business or IT is beside the point. They need to be seen as an integral part of the business and be involved in the strategic planning of the organization. They actually can add quite some value as they know the technologies available and can help the business understand the benefits gained from using one or another approach.

They will be the ones who describe the needs to the IT people and they will do it with context. They will follow-up and ensure those needs are met.

But there is a second element required. Prioritization of the demand.

That requires a portfolio management function. Budgets are limited, demands typically largely surpass the available funds. So, let’s prioritize the requests, using for example the expected return of each requirement. Let’s have them ranked in order of return and start working on the ones that achieve the highest return. This activity should be done collaboratively by both the business and IT. It should be a joint decision regularly reviewed by a governance board.

The benefit of doing this is twofold. It focuses the work on activities that have quantifiable benefits and it ensures the teams remain focused on delivering fast.

Build an agile organization

Once a project is defined, traditional IT departments will use a waterfall approach to deliver the functionality six, nine or twelve months later. In today’s world, this is no longer acceptable. Using agile development methods, functionality can be delivered much faster. But often the finance department requires the project to go through pre-defined gates prior to unleashing budgets. For IT to be fast and agile, these processes also need to be questioned. Can finance release budgets for a number of sprints at the time and review progress on a regular basis. One way is to identify a set of functionality blocks within the project and have finance release the next sum every time a block is taken in production for example. There are creative ways for finance to enable IT to be more agile without losing control of progress.

Complementing agile development methodologies with DevOps and automation speeds up the process of deployment while facilitating the takeover by operations. In manufacturing companies, production can help IT understand how to become lean, spot and remove waste while using 6 sigma techniques to enable continuous improvement. Lean removes waste, increasing the productive time of developers, automation replaces mundane tasks such as testing while DevOps enables more tests to be run and removes human errors increasing the number of successful deployments.

Unfortunately it is very difficult for companies to suddenly change their development approaches, so don’t try. If you’re not using agile and DevOps approaches already, start with a couple projects as I mention in a previous blog entry “DevOps, how do I implement it in a large enterprise?”. It will take you a bit longer to become responsive, but it will ensure you are going to be successful.

Consume Infrastructure

I remember this discussion with a CIO where he explained me it takes his company six weeks to supply a physical server when the server is available in the enterprise warehouse. And that is the case in many companies. If IT wants to be agile it will need access to servers and infrastructure much faster. And this is where cloud comes in. It enables you to provision not only infrastructure, but also platform components in a matter of minutes or hours, making you capable of responding much faster. However, cloud brings with it the need for reviewing some topics. Which cloud are you planning to use, what functionality will you consume, are you OK for locking yourself with one vendor and to what extent, how are you going to secure the end-to-end environment covering both your existing in-house and your cloud environment, how do you ensure seamless use by the end-users etc. I could go on like that. It’s important, when deciding for cloud to make sure you think through how that cloud environment will integrate with your existing systems.

A faster turn-around…

Cloud is one of the elements allowing an IT department to respond to the needs of the business faster, but it’s not the only one. By integrating business and IT, by prioritizing initiatives, streamlining development & operations and enabling fast provisioning through cloud, IT can become a true enabler of the business in a digital context. It will enable the business to react fast if it is being disrupted. But we’ll talk more about that in a next blog entry.

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