IT operations & business strategy: Healing the great divide

Published in ComputerWorld UK 

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The absence of a strategic perspective in IT is often starkly visible – or perhaps conspicuously invisible, particularly in the public sector. Of course there are many legitimate reasons for this. Today’s CIO is required to manage a cost efficient operation without compromising on business growth initiatives and improve service levels while reducing TCO.

Beyond that they are called upon to find ways to integrate services, modernise infrastructure, improve the quality of enterprise data, enhance mobility support and implement compliance requirements, all with a minimal or no additional capital spend. Juggling these opposing imperatives is a fine balancing act in which strategic considerations often fall by the wayside.

The standoff
This cross-current of pressures frequently creates a standoff between those responsible for business strategy and those handling day-to-day operations. As a key part of the operational structure, IT often finds itself having to say ‘No’ to a manager, business unit or other stakeholder often to the point where people start looking for ways to bypass the IT department. The result is a breakdown in communication and a gradually expanding gulf between operational realities and business requirements whereby life becomes a struggle between short term survival and long-term growth rather than the union of both.

Bridging the gap
The only way a healthy business can move forward is when Strategy and Operations work in harmony. By analogy, let’s take a transatlantic cruise. The shipping line’s priority is to keep the customers satisfied, ensure the ship reaches port with its reputation intact and that a growing swell of future bookings increases the company’s market share. The job of the captain and on-board operations team is to ensure running costs are within budget, there is enough fuel, the engines don’t seize up and the ship doesn’t run into icebergs dead ahead. Both need the other to keep the boat afloat and ensure a pipeline of travellers and somewhere to go.

So, how to bridge the gap? In our work with clients across the C-suite, we have found that the route back to alignment is mutual understanding. IT and operational staff often feel left out of the loop and so aren’t aware of the overarching business strategies, or their mind space is over-burdened with short-term demands from the top. On the other hand, strategists feel that the IT department (including outsourcers) just doesn’t care about the needs of the business, isn’t adequately focused on critical areas like compliance and risk management, and seems often more concerned with supporting pet projects rather than seeing to the needs of the enterprise IT platform as a whole.

The strategic perspective
For their part, operational heads need to appreciate what drives the strategic view and why it is vital to the business. Strategy focuses on the long view – typically 12 months or more. It is concerned with staying ahead of the competition curve and anticipating who – or what – will pose a threat or opportunity going forward. They know that nothing is certain and that disruptive trends can appear overnight to wipe the board – take Blackberry, once the mobile office device of choice, now completely sidelined by the iPhone. For this reason strategy planners depend upon a constant stream of accurate, up-to-date business information from IT to enable them to analyse trends.

Cost/efficiency imperatives
For IT operations the focus is on what must be done now to keep a plethora of services and systems up and running. Compared with the strategic ‘macro’ approach, their world encompasses a mass of day-to-day detail. In the pressure to meet budget targets, boost efficiency and wring ever greater productivity from diminishing resources, long-term strategic projects tend to take a back seat. And because of personal preference or an atmosphere of immediate response to tactical need, some business units receive more resources than others, causing internal competition, information silos and poorly integrated services and systems across the enterprise.

Interestingly, there is an area where business strategy and operations intersect. Because of a rapidly-expanding list of global compliance and regulatory initiatives – from health & safety requirements to international trade law, environmental targets and financial governance standards – many on both the strategy and operational side of the business are struggling to find an adequate response. Here is an ideal circumstance for cooperation. If organisations are to be sufficiently protected from risk and not derailed by non-compliance, both sides must work together to address the new compliance measures and governance methodologies that need to be put in place.

On the road to alignment
To align more closely with business, IT must prepare for tomorrow today. While we are well aware of the challenges involved, we say to the CIO: start moving beyond today’s preoccupation with cost, efficiency and productivity and begin to prepare for what will be needed in a growing economy, for it is coming, whether this year or the next. Yes, leverage existing investments, but also start laying in new capacity and the scalable, future-proofed platforms that give users the multi-channel, multi-device tools needed to take advantage of new business opportunities. To the rest of the C-Suite we advise: Free up the budget and look upon IT not as a cost centre but as an enabler of those transformation projects that are going to drive future growth.

While the challenge of running day-to-day IT operations can make it difficult to step back and get a long view, it is important to get an objective assessment of where one is, what’s happening in the outside world, what has become obsolete and where tomorrow’s industry and IT trends are going. The quickest solution is to consult a business technology expert who can benchmark an organisation’s current IT environment, compare it with industry peers, find best sourcing options and most importantly, help to create the IT transformation roadmap that will be in synch with all the downstream needs of governance, compliance and business growth.