In an ideal world, the business side of an enterprise is responsible for setting the revenue goals and then meeting them, while the IT side of the house is responsible for providing the technology support needed to meet those business goals. As Chief Technology Officer of Ness Digital Engineering, I often meet with CMOs and IT leaders of enterprises looking for help as they adapt to a new era of digital transformation. In many cases, the relationship between IT and the business side of the house is far from harmonious.
This fractured relationship has gone through several phases. In the “bad old days” before digital transformation, IT had the upper hand, because no new business initiative could be launched without IT's blessing that the underlying infrastructure provided high performance, reliability and security. Tasked with being the “protectors,” many IT departments became overly cautious, withholding their approval for simple changes needed by the business, while IT examined every possible angle. Paralyzed by fear of being wrong, they slowed down to a pace that choked the business.
Then, the era of digital transformation began. Many companies' products became digital rather than physical, consumers came to expect instantaneous multi-channel transparency over the entire fulfillment process, and fast-moving disruptors changed the rules in many industries. The balance of power shifted away from IT, as business innovators within the enterprise began to find ways to work around their IT department to quickly launch customer-facing, revenue-generating products. IT has been slow to respond to these changes, as they attempt to become more agile and more responsive to business needs.
Today the business side of the house clearly has the upper hand, to the point where IT is, in many cases, an afterthought. For example, I was at a meeting recently with a newly appointed IT manager who had years of business experience but no technical background. He could not understand why his company's data was in such disarray, with multiple data sources that contradicted each other and could not be brought together into a single comprehensive dashboard. To him it sounded like a straightforward technical problem with a clear solution that simply required fixing the plumbing. But, solving this kind of data problem is more akin to art than to plumbing – there are a number of possible solutions, each with its own subtle trade-offs, and it requires a great deal of technical experience to make the right choices. At the end of the day, without responsible technical guidance, these customer-facing systems will collapse due to reliability and security flaws.
Aristotle defined the “Golden Mean” as the harmonious middle between two extremes. For example, the balance between extravagance and miserliness is moderate giving, and the golden mean between rashness and indecisiveness is careful action. The relationship between IT and business to date has gone through extremes, with either IT or the business side dominating to the detriment of the business. Digital transformation demands a more balanced relationship, where the business side innovates with new revenue-generating applications at the pace needed to survive in a digital world, and the IT department provides the solid technologies needed to meet those business goals in a timely and agile fashion.
How can you move your company closer to the Golden Mean? Here are some best practices:
IT needs to get more agile. The days of issuing detailed Requests for Proposals for three-year projects are over, because no one can predict the business priorities in six months, let alone three years. Software development practices have to adapt to handle this dynamic environment by embracing methodologies such as agile development, Minimum Viable Products, Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment. On the hardware side, IT must embrace the Cloud in order to provide the Business with flexibility and scalability, and to reduce CAPEX.
Business needs to stop working around IT. If you get a time estimate you don’t like from IT, avoid the temptation to work around them, e.g., by setting up your own SWAT team. The result could be a system that doesn't integrate with other corporate systems or doesn’t meet your industry's security standards. You'll get the best result by working with IT - understand the constraints that led to their time estimate and work with them to prioritize features so you get a Minimum Viable Product in time.
Make sure IT and Business are involved in every project from the outset. If the project is initiated by IT to solve an infrastructure issue such as platform modernization, Business can help prioritize the order in which customer-facing systems should be modernized based on business pain points. If the project is driven by the Business, e.g., to provide a new revenue-generating feature, IT can ensure that the defined features are implementable in the desired time frame.
IT should leverage partnerships to accelerate delivery. Your company probably has limited experience in technologies you need to deploy in order to keep up with your competitors, e.g., Cloud, Big Data, Machine Learning. In the past, many IT departments have been reluctant to outsource anything due to a fear of creating vendor lock-in or external dependencies. To move at the pace of the new digital economy, you'll need external partners for their outside-in perspective and their experience to help you rapidly adopt new technologies and satisfy new business needs. The key word here is “partner” – look for companies that will work with you over the long term in win-win frameworks.
Companies that can arrive at the Golden Mean of harmony between Business and IT will have a fighting chance to survive and flourish in the digital economy.
About the Author
Moshe has extensive experience in leading adoption of bleeding edge technologies, having worked for large companies as well as entrepreneurial start-ups. Moshe previously headed the Big Data Centre of Excellence at Barclays’ Israel Development Centre (IDEC).
Moshe has worked in the high tech industry for over 30 years in the United States and Israel. He was part of the Emmy award-winning team that designed the scrambling system for DIRECTV, and he holds 6 patents in areas related to pay television, computer security and text mining. He has led R&D teams at companies such as Zoomix (purchased by Microsoft (News - Alert)) and NDS (purchased by Cisco). He is a graduate of Brandeis University and earned graduate degrees from both the University of California at Berkeley and Boston University.
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Edited by Alicia Young