IT as Part of the Business Process

By | March 13, 2006

IT, users and the business have had an uneasy but interesting relationship over the last three decades. The arrival of the Personal Computer heralded a revolution in the workplace. Users discovered that they could do things that previously IT had said were not possible. The business discovered huge productivity gains although some of those were quickly lost as process failed to cope with the influx of technology.

The “them and us” world of IT and its image of ivory towers, was supposed to have be confined to the history books. Sadly, while IT may have lost its absolute control with the arrival of the PC, it has been fighting to reassert some of that, every since.

Today, IT needs to move away from a “take it or leave it” approach and become part of the business. The rarefied skill sets that used to set the Data Processing department apart from everyone else are now used by workers on a daily basis. Users write their own SQL queries against databases, build complex spreadsheets, manipulate data warehouses to find new trends to exploit. The mystique that was IT has, in many people´s eyes, been as debunked as mostly magic tricks.

So how does IT become part of the business process?

The short answer is by understanding what the business wants. IT has a history of deploying technology for technologies sake. Systems are often more about making the life of IT easier than pleasing the users and benefiting the business.

Yet business needs to accept its own responsibility here. Business needs to plan ahead. By telling the IT department what the business goals are for the next year or even two, three or five years, it can sit down with IT and look at how to deliver on those needs.

Users can help both the business and IT by not meekly accepting new systems. A “what´s in it for me?” approach might seem confrontational to some but why would you use something that isn´t going to improve what you do? Users are often caricatured as either sheep or serial complainers and those complaints are always after the fact.

As an example let´s look at a technology which, according to Gartner, is probably already coming to a desk near you in the next few months or, at the latest, in the next two years.

Voice over IP is a way of delivery telephone calls over the business network and then the Internet. It is seen as offering substantial reductions in call costs. Yet it has to overcome user reluctance and that means explaining how Quality of Service (QoS) will work.

Users have an expectation that when they pick up the handset, they will be able to hear the caller and understand the message. That´s what the International Telecommunication Agency requires for a PSTN call and that is the current user experience. Users are also aware that their network can often take time to make things happen.

IT needs to be able to immediately address these concerns and ensure that it delivers a solution that meets expectation. This means knowing how the business intends to use VoIP, testing the infrastructure and then ensuring that they have the metrics in place to prove the quality of the service. Failure to do any of these will lead to the “yet another IT foul-up” reaction from the users and the business.

The use of Service Level Agreements (SLAs) is seen as one of the tools that the business can use to track the performance of IT. Among the things they attempt to regulate are the responsiveness of IT systems, the performance of help desks and what metrics will govern the success or failure of IT. As systems evolve, they become increasingly dependent upon each other. The same is going to be true of the way that SLAs are deployed. A failure in just one system could have unexpected consequences elsewhere.

This highlights the need for IT to understand the fundamentals of being a “utility” when it comes to delivering a service. Without an intelligent infrastructure providing metrics on performance or the ability to simulate future traffic trends to stay ahead of the curve, IT cannot be sure that the implementation of new technologies will meet the needs of business or the users.

Over the next few years, many of the new technologies that are being touted as “business killers” have a high QoS requirement. At the same time, the amount of data being moved around the existing infrastructure is expected to explode as data mining and Business Intelligence (BI) tools are deployed to a significant portion of users.

The pressures on existing networks will continue to grow which again points to the need for an approach that allows IT to have a complete view of what is happening and the impact of any new deployment or traffic increase. While there are a myriad of management solutions out there, they all seem to deal with different issues.

Hardware monitoring, software monitoring and end to end transaction times are rarely monitored by the same system. If a piece of malware gets onto the network and causes massive amounts of traffic then every application is likely to suffer, some more than most. Few of the monitoring systems will detect this until it is too late. After all, it´s something that the security team should have dealt with.

Inside very large organisations there has been a trend to break the infrastructure down into teams for management. This might seem like a good solution but unless the teams talk to each other, unless there is a process that brings together information from all of the teams into a coherent view of IT, then problems will be missed.

Electricity, gas, water and telephony are all utilities. If IT is to be seen as a service, if it is to be as transparent as a utility, then it needs to learn from these people. That does not allow business to avoid its responsibilities. Unless it engages with IT and provides information on what it wants and where the business is planning to go in the future, IT cannot deliver a new service approach.

IT must also tell the business what information it needs and provide clear metrics covering performance and reliability. The use of SLAs to justify new spending must be backed by transparency in proving they can be met. A key area where IT can show its willingness to align with the business is in business process. All too often application development takes place without being tied to specific business processes. IT can help itself and the business by always asking of new requests, “what business process does this improve?”

Communication is a two way street and revolutionising IT Service Delivery should come as a joint project, not be dictated by either party. While it was Bob Hoskins and BT who said “It´s good to talk”, IT and the business need to communicate in order to deliver.

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