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I don’t know how to split an atom. I am also not a surgeon. But as a business process and information technology specialist, I can write instructions and develop some level of automation around these processes. I have worked in numerous industries in the public, private and non-private sectors ranging from banking, natural resources to world vision. Short of really specialized skills that require very specific education and training, information system professionals can normally figure out how to get on the same page as their business counterparts in short order. That is part of their formal training as well as acquired experience and aptitude. I believe that it makes us IT folks somewhat special in what we do.
For some reason, most business people do not want to understand what makes IT tick, nor do they have much interest in knowing how an information technology person works their magic which takes an idea from just that to a finished solution. Because of a lack of this understanding, business people don’t trust information technology professionals. I find this puzzling and quite frankly somewhat irksome. We meet them more than half-way; why don’t they make the effort? Based on my three plus decades in the business, here is my take and it’s going to be pretty straight up.
There are two business situations that are quite distinct: In one case, a new business initiative requires a technology solution and there is nothing currently in place. This is typical of a new business or a new product and nothing exists except some ideas and possibly a business process. The second case deals with an existing solution that needs to be changed for some reason.
It’s pretty obvious that it is much easier to build a new house than to live in an existing one while renovations are going on. The first situation is clean, the second one is messy. Sometimes there is an option to buy a product and simply use it rather than building it from scratch. That is known in the business as a COTS – custom off the shelf – product. The problem is that business is normally unwilling to adapt to a product. They think it will be cheaper to buy it and fix it up to meet their needs. Ever try to turn an A-frame shell into a traditional four bedroom, two-story colonial house? Riiight!
In order to understand the reasons for the dissention between business and IT, we need to revisit history about how the information technology business started. IT began as a part of Finance and Administration (F&A). Bean counters got tired of counting on calculators and found that a computer could do it way faster and use some logic within its calculations. The IT people were a cost to F&A and were not considered to provide any real value other than getting a machine to work somewhat faster than a human.
Over time, IT demonstrated that it could do more than just that and it gained an identity. However, it was still considered by most businesses as a cost function that was paid for by business. Many progressive organizations decided to invite IT to the executive round table and treat intellectual capital and information as an asset along with other typical assets such as income and real estate. They really did get it!
Most government organizations do not really earn money and so for them the concept of making money or reducing cost is not very important as long as their appropriation is not in jeopardy. If they find a way to reduce cost, they will just get less. If they find a way to make money, it will go to treasury. So where is the incentive?
Again, it is a matter of progressive thinking. As an organization, if you have a vision and a charter for success, then regardless of whether one is dealing with a private or government organization, the focus should be on customers, products, services, efficient delivery channels, build once and use many times, efficient business processes and other such concepts. The private sector gets it because their shareholders demand it. The government does not because its customers raise such issues close to elections about every two to four years – and then not necessarily in unison.
Consider the current elections: After two billion dollars of expense by both parties, we have managed to achieve about the same status quo prior to the elections. The country is divided, we have large issues regarding taxation and the economy looming thirty days out and little hope of achieving a compromise.
So back to not trusting IT. Well, the problem is that business decides that it knows its operations best. Anyone peeking in from the outside cannot possibly understand it as well as someone who has done it for years. This is precisely the issue. IT people typically ask, why do you do this? Why do you do it this way? Whom does it benefit? Someone else in your organization is doing the same thing – why are you both doing it? Asking such questions means that business processes will be shaken up, jobs may change, organization structures may transform, and status quo could be significantly disturbed.
A great deal depends on the expectations of the executive sponsor when an IT department or person is engaged. It also depends on the clout of the sponsor. If the executive sponsor is weak, the project is doomed to failure. If the sponsor drives the project, it has a healthy chance of success. If the IT executives report to the executive sponsor, the odds of success dramatically increase. Forget the theory that books and methodologies teach you; this is purely from over thirty years of experience over a vast range of public and private sector operations.
What is the responsibility of the business or the buyer? To articulate what is needed. However, that is not as easy as it sounds. Many buyers will specify a need in terms of a solution. Such as, “I need a smart phone that handles email, browsing…oh yeah, also allows me to make calls.” The solution may be one device or more than one device. It depends on what the buyer really wants to do with the instrument. What are the requirements? If the intention is to make calls 90% of the time and occasionally check email or browse the internet, the instrument and its cost, plus the cost of the service may dramatically change based on which service and device is selected. What the client really wants is that the device must be “cool”, comparable to what the circle of friends own for bragging rights.
A vendor may offer the right product but it may be dismissed as cheesy and not a fun device. Another vendor may offer a snappy product that is overkill but meets the customer’s emotional needs and may earn the business. This seems like a trite example. Now multiply this example by a thousand fold or more in terms of complexity and you can understand the magnitude of mistakes that can be made on a really serious venture.
Who is at fault?
… We’ll answer this question in a second article in the next PA TIMES Online update.
Author: Shami Dugal is a member of ASPA and on the SHHSA Board. He has Bachelor’s degree in Operations Research from University of Waterloo (Canada) and an MPA from Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa). He can be reached at [email protected]