The Benefits of Focusing on Technology ROI (Return on Incrementalism)

Bombarded by rapidly changing business requirements and frustrated by the constraints of legacy management and control systems, the natural reaction of technology decision makers may be to rip out the big, old platform and replace it with a big, new one. But that isn’t always the best answer.

As Sanjay Srivastava and Gianni Giacomelli write in IndustryWeek (Separating Impact from Hype: How CFOs Achieve Technology ROI), ” A huge, multi-year implementation is no longer the only option available to leverage better technology. In fact, massive implementations can sometimes undermine actual business goals.”

Benefits of an incremental approach to technologyThe two authors ask why “so many companies reach the end of a multi-year deployment only to discover they are not materially better off than before, and that the world has moved on to the next big thing,” and contend this is because, in many instances, enterprises “implement a vast array of process and technology improvements rather than surgically target the actual drivers of desired business outcomes.” In other words, firms take a revolutionary “rip and replace” approach to large systems rather than implementing flexible, incremental answers to specific business needs.

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MIT: Two Strategies CIOs Need to Deal With the “Biggest Technology Disruption Ever”

“The Internet and e-commerce were major disruptors, but what we’re seeing now is the biggest disruption ever from a technology perspective.”

Those were the words (reflecting a notion previously explored here) of Adriana Karaboutis, CIO of Dell, discussing “what leading the digital enterprise means for today’s top IT executives” at last year’s MIT CIO Symposium. Karaboutis defines the current wave of technology disruption as everything from connected devices (the Internet of Things) and social media to wearables.

Biggest technology disruption ever?
Image credit: Brian Solis

The panel focused on two strategies for addressing today’s unprecedented level of technological disruption: embracing digital technology in order to lead the change, and immersion in the customer experience in order to develop customer-centric technology processes.

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Legacy Stability, Mobile Speed: How to Bridge the Technology Generation Gap

The need to enable rapid development of user-friendly, mobile-enabled applications that solve today’s business problems by accessing data from yesterday’s legacy software systems is challenging enterprise IT groups. Bridging the gap between these environments is “an evolution that IT organizations struggle to keep up with,” according to Ed Anuff.

How to bridge the technology generation gapWriting in WIRED magazine, Anuff contends in Reach Two-Speed IT with APIs that “To succeed, a new approach is required; one that enables agile and web-scale innovation so that IT can meet evolving business requirements while enabling existing systems to continue running reliably, efficiently, and securely.”

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Agility, Evolution, and Teamwork: What Big Companies Can Learn from Startups (and Vice Versa)

Startup companies are widely perceived as being lean, agile, flexible, and most importantly: fast. Decisions are made and implemented quickly. They can “turn on a dime” when business needs or marketplace conditions require.

Large enterprises, in contrast, are known for none of these characteristics. They are however, generally, very good at “process.” Though sometimes derided as “bureaucratic,’ this process mentality is vital to successfully managing large-scale operations.

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How Agile Development Powers IT at the Speed of Business

By any number of measures—scientific progress, computing power, economic output, enterprise technology—the pace of change continues to accelerate exponentially. When combined with the shift in customer and employee expectations of technology (a.k.a. the consumerization of IT), this likely spells the end for waterfall-style development processes and expensive, disruptive, long-lead-time big-bang enterprise software system implementations.

Agile methods speed software developmentTraditionally, the challenge in waterfall-style development processes was ” trying to come up with every requirement a product might possibly need to meet before starting to build it,” according to CIO magazine’s Sharon Florentine in How to Use Agile Development to Avoid Project Failures.

Because it’s difficult for people to identify and articulate every feature they may need in advance, additions and changes to specifications were nearly inevitable, leading to scope creep, which caused most projects to be delivered late and over budget.

Given the accelerating pace of change, the concern today isn’t so much that users can’t predefine all needed features (though they still can’t), but that even if they could, the list would be obsolete well before the project was finished. Possibly even before the list was finished. Business requirements today simply change too quickly. And “It’s…depressing for developers (to)  see that the product they’re working on doesn’t meet the objectives (business or consumer) while they’re writing them,” per Florentine.

As noted in both the CIO article and here previously, the answer is to utilize an agile approach to development, combined with collaborative teams: “You’ve got (to get) business and IT working together, collaborating, and that’s what will make the difference…At first, everyone feels like they’re ‘forced’ to work together, but once it becomes apparent that the goal for both teams is continual improvement, that’s when you start to see the value.”

Even more powerful than having IT develop a product that iteratively meets an expanded range of user needs is for IT to create an environment where users can do it themselves. Graphical workflow process automation tools enable business process owners to map out their own business processes, starting with simple tasks and building in complexity over time.

One example is an HR manager automating a simple task (such as ordering business cards for a new employee), then building upon that over time to automate a much more complex process (like employee onboarding). Taking an agile approach enables business process owners to achieve “quick wins” by automating simple tasks, then building the confidence and trust to expand the parameters for automation.

With the right tools, processes can be tested and tweaked before activation. And since processes can be easily rolled back if needed, and the workflow process design happens at the system of engagement level with no modifications to core enterprise applications code, there is virtually no risk that user-designed processes will “break” any mission-critical functions.  Mature workflow automation tools will provide this agility while still giving the IT organization ongoing management and monitoring of these processes.

Collaboration and agility are vital components of project success for IT and the business. By empowering business process owners to easily design their own customer-facing services and automated workflow IT groups can better align their goals address a critical issue raised in the CIO article, that “what the business side and IT side want to deliver don’t sync.”

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Three Ways Enterprise Architects Can Conquer Business Challenges

Enterprise architects face unique challenges as the bridge between IT and the business. They need both deep technical skills and business acumen; the ability to understand the details of technical infrastructure combined with a big-picture perspective; and the communication skills to work as effectively with introverted IT staff as with extroverted business leaders.

This position wasn’t necessary and didn’t exist in the days of monolithic departmental software systems that operated independently and couldn’t “talk” to each other, but emerged as a vital need with the introduction of web services and service-oriented architectures that enabled IT components to be connected and re-used across multiple applications.

Challenges for enterprise architectsEffective enterprise architects must be able to balance short-term priorities (e.g., simplifying processes for BYOD device registration and support) with a long-term strategic design of the organization’s IT infrastructure (how will new applications, tools and processes fit with and enhance existing core systems?).

In addition to the need to possess and master this unique combination of skills, enterprise architects are challenged on a day-to-day basis to:

  • Execute on a vision for improving business processes, but often with no direct authority or budget.
  • Persuade the leaders of other business functions to believe in and help achieve specific objectives to move the enterprise forward.
  • Balance tactical, short-term, quick payback projects with strategic initiatives across the business.

Of course, the role has its attractions as well. It’s a high-visibility position with the opportunity to make a significant difference for the organization; it provides the opportunity to work with cross-functional, often multinational, teams; and the challenges (noted above) keep the job interesting.

How can enterprise architects successfully achieve their objectives while conquering the challenges inherent in the position? Here are three strategies for maximizing effectiveness:

Build support. To overcome corporate inertia and resistance to change, think about who will be positively impacted by an initiative, and how to communicate the benefits in terms that resonate with each group.

For example, a project to enable employees to report service incidents through a simple interactive web portal–rather than picking up the phone–is more likely to be embraced by those employees if it means their issues are resolved more quickly. The help desk manager will appreciate the reduction in call volume. HR will like the increase in employee satisfaction; departmental managers the increase in productivity; and executive management the decrease in support costs.

Create ad hoc coalitions and teams. Projects are more likely to succeed if those affected have input at the planning stage, and even more so if those individuals are involved in building the new system.

For example, empowering managers to create, test, and deploy their own automated processes using simple graphical tools greatly improves not only the quality of the process, but also the likelihood of adoption.

Tackle big challenges using an agile approach. As noted above, enterprise architects get involved in a mix of small, tactical improvements and large, strategic projects. Large projects are generally assumed to entail much greater cost, time, and risk.

But large projects, even those spanning the entire enterprise, can be made more manageable and less disruptive by adopting an agile approach. For example, implementing an enterprise request management (ERM) strategy to simplify and centralize employee provisioning across shared services functions can start small, with the redesign and automation of just one or a few common (or particularly painful) processes.

Then the implementation can be expanded to encompass additional departments and services incrementally. In this case, enabling process owners to design their own task flows, as cited above, not only increases the likelihood of project success and user adoption, but also speeds the rollout by spreading the work across multiple managers.

To address budgetary constraints as well as controlling the growth and complexity of the organization’s IT infrastructure, enterprise architects look to leverage existing technology investments whenever possible. Tools that facilitate communication between core management systems and data sources, and between those systems of record and user-facing systems of engagement, enable enterprise architects to improve processes and automate task workflows with minimal investment in new technology.

The Kinetic Task automation engine is one tool that can serve as the “plumbing” for cross-functional business process improvement initiatives, managing the information flow between any systems that can communicate via common methodologies such as APIs, Web Services, REST, or SOAP.  Kinetic Task is perfect for agile organizations providing the flexible pragmatic approach a scripting environment provides, while also providing the control and management functionality of a robust BPM tool.

Through communication, team building, agility, and careful technology investment, enterprise architects can successfully conquer the challenges of the role and use technology to improve business processes and outcomes.

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Mobile, Social, and Cloud Computing – The Changing Role of the CIO

The focus and responsibilities of the CIO position are expected to evolve significantly over the next few years, as IT adapts to the latest once-in-a-generation change.

CIOs will be challenged to innovate and be strategic planning partners with other business leaders, while dealing with increased cyber-security threats and information architecture platform changes, in an environment of skills shortages and anemic budgets—among other changes.

Those are a few of the conclusions reported on CIO Insight from a recent IDC study, Worldwide CIO Agenda 2014 Top 10 Predictions. The report describes the new challenges CIOs are facing and provides recommendations for how CIOs can transform their organizations over the next few years to adapt to these developments.

Changing role of the CIO

Three trends in particular—pertaining to agility, mobility, cloud computing, social networks, and service planning—deserve a closer examination.

Mobile Business Will Require More Support

“By 2017, as a result of enterprise mobility, 60% of CIOs will support agile architectures with a mix of cloud-based interfaces for legacy and next-generation apps.”

As noted here previously, mobile device management and mobilizing business processes is a high priority in a majority of enterprises this year. But not every business process needs to be mobilized, and not all of those that do have the same urgency. The best approach to supporting mobile workers is an agile model; determine which processes are most vital to and common among mobile users, redesign those processes to provide a delightful experience for mobile users, then move on to the next prioritized set.

In addition, as the prediction above acknowledges, most enterprises have significant investments in legacy control and management applications. Mobile users increasingly need the ability to view, add, delete, and change information in these systems. Proving mobile access to legacy applications and data needn’t mean a disruptive and expensive “rip and replace” approach.

Instead, build a simplified, mobile-friendly web interface that enables users to access and interact with data in legacy systems. This “leverage and extend” approach is far less costly and time-consuming, and can be rolled out gradually, as with mobile process redesign. Forrester Research describes this as integrating “legacy ‘systems of record’ with newer, cloud / mobile / web-based ‘systems of engagement.'”

Demographic Shift to Public Social Networks

“80% of CIOs in consumer businesses will integrate IT with public social networks by 2015 in order to meet the needs of young and mobile customers.”

Possibly—though the notion that public social networks are the best venue for IT (or other business service) integration is certainly debatable.

Just as most people use different social networks for different types of interaction (e.g., LinkedIn for professional networking, Facebook for friends and family, Twitter for news, etc.), business communications aren’t monolithic either. Projects and topics within a business are typically of most interest to a discrete, defined group of employees.

It’s likely therefore that business application vendors will build contextual social capabilities into existing systems, so that, for example, the P&L statement can be discussed within the accounting system, while performance reviews can be commented on (with proper access rights, of course) from within the HR management software, and IT service metric trends can generate social interaction within a business value dashboard.

Gap Between Business and IT Planning Unsustainable

“IDC expects 60% of CIOs to recognize the importance of developing a fully functional enterprise architecture linked to service development and planning, but says less than 40% will deploy that architecture effectively.”

A key component of an “enterprise architecture linked to service development and planning” is a business service catalog that enables business process owners to map out, test and deploy their own process workflows in conjunction with IT, but with minimal technical assistance.

This approach enables those with the most knowledge of business processes to redesign those processes from the user perspective, and teams to develop processes that cross functional lines (e.g., onboarding a new employee). Employees, meanwhile, are provided with one central portal from which they can request any type of service, resource, or product needed to do their jobs, and check on the status of pending requests, at any time from any device.

As the role of the CIO evolves, some disruption will be inevitable. But using tools that leverage existing technologies as much as possible minimizes business interruption. Using those tools to enable automated self-service increases convenience for users while reducing costs. And taking an agile approach to service redesign, and the technology needed to support automated, enterprise-wide service delivery, can help avoid unnecessary jolts and smooth the path (somewhat at least) to becoming a next-generation CIO.

Next steps:

Three Ways to Reduce the Stress of IT

IT professionals are feeling unprecedented levels of stress. The situation is unhealthy for those who work in IT as well as the organizations and business users who depend on them.

With technology playing an ever-larger role across enterprises, from analyzing exponentially-growing data sets to automating marketing functions to keeping remote and mobile employees productive, holding onto experienced and knowledgeable IT staff is more vital than ever.

How to reduce stress in ITYet according to recent research reported on eSecurity Planet, nearly four out of five IT administrators say they are “actively considering leaving their jobs due to job-related stress”—up from just over half of respondents a year ago. A third or more have missed social functions, time with family, and sleep, due to issues at work.

Of course, some level of white-collar stress is inevitable. But again, given the magnitude and pace of change in IT right now—from consumerization to “big data” to the high-profile importance of information security—retaining expert staff is vital. Bringing down the stress level is not only crucial for retention, but also for optimizing productivity, encouraging strategic thinking, and preventing mistakes.

How can stress be reduced? As the article notes, “providing realistic IT budgets and staffing levels” is ideal—but pressing for budget increases (particularly to hire more people) in this still-sluggish economic recovery is tough. So here are three other ideas for reducing the time demands on IT professionals.

Automate service delivery tasks. Are IT workers still manually chasing down approval signatures, scheduling resources, or entering data into long (and often redundant) online forms? Use workflow automation software in conjunction with email, calendar, and business management systems to automate approval routing and scheduling, and pre-populate forms with known data wherever possible.

Empower process owners. Instead of having business process owners describe their requirements to business analysts, who then write specifications for developers, who then write code to automate those business processes—give business managers the ability to build their own automated task workflows. Implement enterprise request management (ERM) technology that provides departmental managers with graphical tools for creating, testing, refining, and implementing their own process flows, with minimal technical assistance.

Hang up the phone, pick up self-service. Not only does self-service save money (by enabling IT help desk staff to process more issues in less time), users prefer it in most cases to using the phone. Providing employees with online tools to submit requests, and track the status of pending requests, not only deflects the initial phone call but also follow-up calls to “see where things are at.”

As the role of IT expands beyond managing business users and computing devices to all manner of digitally-connected things, the demands on IT professionals will only continue to expand. Making smart use of automation, empowerment, and self-service, among other efficiency approaches, can help IT professionals get more productive work done while decreasing destructive stress.

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