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Teaching the Business to Tango

Author’s Note: Given the positive reaction to my last blog, “Purple People: The Key to BI Success”, I thought I’d publish an excerpt from the second edition of my book, “Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business”  due out this fall. This excerpt focuses on the responsibility of the business to close the business-IT gap, something that doesn’t get enough attention these days.

Aligning Business and IT

Tension Abounds. There has always been distrust between the business and the technical sides of an organization, but performance dashboard projects seem to heighten the tension to extreme levels. I have been in the technology industry for 20 years, and frankly, I’ve been shocked by the intensity of the distrust that I have witnessed between these two groups while researching this book.

Although there is much talk about the need to align business and information technology (IT) departments, little progress has been made. Part of the problem is systemic to IT departments and technical people, but another part involves the willingness of business executives and managers to engage with IT constructively on a long-term basis….

Counseling for Business

Although IT groups generally get the lion’s share of the blame for misalignment between business and IT, it takes two to tango, as they say. The business shares equal responsibility for the tension between the two groups—perhaps more so, since it does not always recognize how its actions and behavior contribute to the problem.

The business needs to understand that it often moves too fast for IT to keep up. It harbors a short-term bias toward action and rarely takes a long-term view toward building sustainable value. This is especially true in U.S. companies, whose Wild West heritage makes them notorious for acting first and asking questions later. The business needs to slow down sometimes and ask whether change is really needed or if they are reacting in knee-jerk fashion to the latest event or issue of the day. They need to prioritize their needs and evaluate what they need now and what can wait. By working incrementally, the business discovers that it gets what it needs faster than by trying to build a solution all at once.

Decentralized organizations magnify this behavior, parceling out authority to divisions and departments to make decisions faster and in the context of local markets. Although there are advantages to decentralization, there are considerable downsides that contribute to the perpetual misalignment of the business and IT. The scores of analytical and operational silos, including the hundreds and thousands of pernicious spreadmarts that hamstring corporate productivity, testify to the business’ fixation with speed and decentralized decision making.

Lack of Self Discipline. Finally, the business has the upper hand in its relationship with IT, and it often leverages its position in a high-handed and capricious manner. In many organizations, executives threaten to outsource or offshore IT when it does not deliver sufficient value, ignoring the possibility that their own actions and decisions may have crippled IT’s ability to function effectively. The business also lacks a reasonable degree of restraint and self-discipline when it comes to IT projects. One IT manager said his company’s annual technology planning process is a sham because the business cannot discipline itself to live within its limits.

“Prior to the beginning of every calendar year, the business prioritizes IT projects for the next 12 months. Out of 90 projects, they identify 60 of them as ‘high priority’ and we create a schedule to deliver them,” says the beleaguered IT manager. “But even before January 1st arrives, the business adds 20 more ‘high-priority’ projects to our list and adds another 20 projects before April. And then they tell us in March that we are already two months behind schedule!”

There are many ways to align business and IT and create a lasting sustainable partnership. In the world of BI, these range from gathering better business requirements and adopting new agile development methodologies to creating a BI governance program and creating a BI Center of Excellence that leverages business analysts and super users. My book and blogs go into detail on these and other techniques. Stay tuned!

 

Posted by Wayne Eckerson on May 6, 2010


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