bridging the chasm between IT and business: the view from both sides

Businesses ask much of their IT departments. They need to support every division and function within the organization-from the deep internal back-end through the customer-facing service and support front-end-and increasingly, have to do it with fewer people, tighter budgets and shorter timeframes.

from chaos to order: the IT perspective

When you are doing more with less, stability and predictability are your friends. It’s not surprising that for most IT departments the primary goal is a stable network encompassing predictable (and measurable) functional applications. Our focus is on technology issues because that’s our job. Our desire is for elegant architectures and cutting-edge solutions because that’s our passion. Admittedly, IT folks can sometimes be guilty of the “cool new toy” syndrome-technology for its own sake-but this is the result of a genuine love of what technology represents: new and more efficient ways to accomplish tasks that were previously heavy-handed, manually intensive and prohibitively costly.

The very nature of the IT professional can make communication with his or her business unit counterparts difficult. That’s unfortunate because we’re all in the same boat: The business either thrives, and we along with it, or we all go home. It’s ironic, because, in fact, both sides want the same thing: effective solutions that improve the ability to perform job functions and therefore improve the company’s bottom line. We just don’t have the same perspectives on the problems.

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IT is a very process-oriented endeavor. We look for structure in everything we do, and we instill it in places where it is lacking. Order out of chaos. Achieving business goals by codifying and automating business processes is at least a partial description of IT’s value proposition for the enterprise. However, there’s a limit to the value technology can deliver when the goals are constantly changing and the underlying processes are broken or nonexistent.

The key word here is consistency. From the IT perspective, we don’t always see much of it coming from the business units. Their expectations, directions and desired outcomes can change daily. Just when one IT objective or milestone has been accomplished, the request that sparked it can flip-flop into something else entirely. This constant change creates friction within the IT organization, and more to the point, in how IT as a whole views and responds to the business units. These types of rapid business changes often appear to be a sign of disorganization or poor planning, both anathema to IT. Ultimately, this creates cultural barriers that impede effective communication.

The situation is exacerbated when business views IT as a panacea for what are essentially business process problems, while simultaneously ignoring input from IT about the nature of those processes. Speeding up a broken process will not yield an improved result. The adage “garbage in, garbage out” sums it up nicely. But line-of-business leaders are not often inclined to look to IT for any kind of root-cause analysis of business process issues, and this is reinforced by corporate cultures that do not encourage IT teams to suggest changes outside the realm of technology.

The good news is that when business processes are properly examined, technology can do wonders for further optimizing their execution.

For example, as an energy provider, Williams faces increasingly strict regulatory compliance requirements. Gearing up for Sarbanes-Oxley compliance presented an opportunity for IT to engage for the first time with certain business units and practices. What we found was that this was not strictly an IT issue. We had no defined procurement process, no-or at least very few-documented purchase orders, etc. Sarbanes requires control and auditability, which IT can only provide if there are processes to be measured and tracked. We ultimately provided the technological solution utilizing enterprise asset management (EAM) software from Indus International, but the processes weren’t in place to immediately leverage the technology. As a result, the road getting there was bumpy.

fluid and dynamic: the business group perspective

For an energy company like Williams, or indeed, most any major industry company, the variables in business are immense. Macro-economic fluctuations, governmental policies and regulations, competitive landscapes, even regional conditions like weather, can all change on a dime. And don’t forget that ultimately business is conducted by people, with personality quirks, good days and bad days, and all the other elements that impact interpersonal relationships.

The point is that business is fluid and dynamic by nature. Rigidity is a detrimental trait for a business executive who must steer the ship through constantly changing waters. It is true that business goals can sometimes change on a daily basis. This is because a business must be super-sensitive in its reactions to changing markets and competitive and customer pressures. In fact, the speed and degree to which a company can respond to these dynamic conditions is a good indication of the company’s health and future prospects.

IT seems to have trouble dealing with this business reality, and, in a nutshell, this is the main source of friction and communication issues between IT and the business. Those of us on the business side often feel that IT just doesn’t speak our language. IT takes a very structured approach to the challenges placed before it: Here’s the end goal, and here’s the path to get there. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but business technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists expressly to support the goals and needs of the business units, and on the business side, we’re dealing with various personnel and equipment, we’re crossing departmental boundaries, we’re satisfying multiple regulatory agencies, and we’re doing it all on shifting sands. Because our requirements are changing day-to-day, it can be hard for us to articulate our needs in a way that IT can understand, and it requires a bit of a mindset shift from them to bridge that chasm.

IT tends to focus on technical solutions that are architecturally pleasing. But “pleasing” to IT may not mean “acceptable” to business. Too often, IT sacrifices more effective methods to meet the business needs in favor of “cool” technologies. Evidence for this has been abundant in the rampant technology spending frenzy of the past few years-spending that yielded too little in the way of business return on investment. And that over-spending has directly resulted in the tightened budgets that IT departments complain about today.

There is also a fundamental disconnect in how IT performance is measured and compensated. As stated previously, IT is in the business of supporting the business. But IT is not compensated based on the same metrics as those business units. This is a problem because it does not put the incentive in the right place, often reinforcing the misguided notion that IT is a silo of activity that is on some level disconnected from business performance.

There is yet another aspect of corporate IT culture that needs to change to create more fruitful and harmonious interactions with the business side. There’s often a lack of project management experience within IT teams, so day-to-day operations management isn’t there. This can negatively impact the execution of new IT-supported business initiatives. For example, in the initiative cited above, the project went well beyond straight Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. The new processes we developed had to comply not only with the SOX purchasing control mandate, but also with OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) regulations for mechanical integrity, environmental regulations, and other reliability requirements and goals. In addition, we needed to manage equipment on a company-wide, cross-functional level, and to implement standard maintenance practices. We wanted to minimize costs and improve visibility by centralizing all asset business data in a single database that could be accessed and updated from every location. The solution needed to interface with our central accounting system and had to be simple enough for any field user to grasp. In short, we needed the ability to measure, and better manage, business areas that were key in helping Williams be the lowest total cost provider of natural gas gathering and processing services.

This was a project that required a new degree of program management control and broad thinking from our IT department. We got there through a combination of strong technology from Indus International and an adjustment in how our IT team approaches its integration within our overall business.

uniting the two camps

For IT and the business to mutually excel, established cultures within the two camps must be examined and adjusted to bridge communications gaps and foster higher levels of collaboration.

IT goals must be developed in conjunction with the business line. Bonuses and incentives should be tied to the same metrics for the business teams and the IT teams. On the other side, business units must make consistency in communication a top goal in their business processes. The more involved IT is with the business decisions that affect demands on IT, the more IT can provide solutions that align to the business goals. Further, the corporate culture needs to encourage business process feedback from IT. IT often has a different, fresh perspective on how to approach the challenges the business is trying to overcome.

IT needs to plug itself directly into the business decisions. It can no longer exist as an isolated silo. Also, IT must commit to identifying solutions that first meet the business need and are secondarily architecturally pleasing.

Williams has embraced a “business partner” approach with IT that has been very successful in uniting IT and the business. Although many companies say they do this, making the cultural shift to enable it is not easy. The lesson learned at Williams is that this is more than a mandate for empathy between the two sides: It requires active communication and decision-making. Understanding is one thing. Actively incorporating another’s viewpoint and acting in a unified fashion is another.

Terry Robinson is a systems analyst consultant and Chad Chamberlain is EAM project manager with Williams, headquartered in Tulsa, Okla.

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