Business and IT - A Marriage Made in Heaven?


To most non-technical people, the mere mention of "IT" can be a real turn off, or result in a roll of the eyes. Although traditionally associated with geeks developing code in a back room, IT - in its very broadest sense - forms the backbone of organizations today, which begs the question: why is there still such a huge communication gap between the IT discipline and the business it powers? This article provides anecdotes and advice for businesses to help them resolve the issues between business and IT, and describes how using Agile methods might just save their relationship.

The Newlyweds
While IT and business have had a close relationship, it is only fairly recently that a more integral partnership - where both parties share business goals and objectives - has been critical in driving the business forward. Historically, technology projects have been owned and driven by the IT department and, more often than not, have failed to create the connection between the technology implementation and business value.
Like any new marriage, there are conflicts of interest, differences in opinion and approach that can inhibit an effective collaboration. This typically results in the business thinking it's not being served by the IT department, and opportunities are being missed because of IT's inability to respond quickly. In contrast, the techies say they are doing all they can, but the business is constantly{sidebar id=1} changing its requirements and doesn't understand the complexity of what's being asked for. Even though IT will drive a project, the business often views it as a mere back office function, not supporting its role in creating business value or meeting requirements. All the business sees are budgets spiralling out of control and what it needs never really being delivered.
It is also common for businesses to fail to measure the true value of IT; however this is a mistake. Only by assigning business value, in hard currency, to each IT deliverable and even every feature of a deliverable, can business truly manage the relationship with IT effectively. When embarking on any IT project, it must therefore be developed in line with business need and provide a measurable output of how the project will help drive business forward.
End of the Honeymoon Period
The development of a new software application can prompt a classic case of communication breakdown. Using a traditional waterfall approach, the business starts off by communicating its objectives reasonably well - scoping out the project in a huge amount of detail upfront. However, when the business hands over the project to the IT department, it leaves it well alone for months ... and then wonders why the end result doesn't meet its expectations.
The reason is this: a waterfall approach encourages IT and business to work in parallel with one another rather than in an integrated, collaborative process, which Agile development methods advocate. This method of defining requirements without reviewing them on an ongoing basis leaves no room for change, so when change inevitably occurs, it means that deadlines and costs can snowball out of control.

Coming to an Understanding
The challenge for nearly all businesses is to get IT and business to share similar objectives and continually communicate those objectives effectively. The IT department might be interested in the bits and bytes of specific technologies, but what it should really be asking of the business is: how much revenue would the business like from a new implementation? Being able to evaluate and analyze projects in these terms on an ongoing basis is vital in order to get business buy-in from the start.
Having someone or something which can aid mediation between the two departments is the only way for both sides to get what they want and for the IT project to succeed. This is where Agile methods and processes - developed primarily to ensure success in software development projects - can provide the answer.
Agile methodologies break down a project into short one-to-four week iterations, each treated as a "mini-project" which is planned, scoped out, designed, coded and tested before moving onto the next iteration. Input from the business and its users is included every step of the way, so that the resulting application matches the business requirement as closely as possible. Daily "scrum" meetings allow project workers to discuss their progress, actions for the day and any possible challenges - but are kept very short so that meetings don't impede progress.
An example of how Agile methods can increase collaboration between business and IT can be seen in Valtech's recent work with one of the worlds leading travel companies on a new booking system. The company relied on IT to manage bookings, but technology was still considered a back office function and not a strategic business asset. The current systems were unable to meet growing demand and while IT was attempting to respond to this problem from a purely technical standpoint, the business was demanding, cajoling, and threatening over lost revenue and poor customer satisfaction. The upgrade project was bogged down in detailed technical complexities, while the peak seasonal booking period was fast approaching, representing a very real threat of significant further loss of revenue due to the inadequacies of the current system.
The desperate CIO, faced with what he believed to be an impossible task, brought in Valtech to assist. The advisory team immediately engaged on two tracks: within IT, a full audit of the status of the project; within the business, engagement at multiple levels to gain a full understanding of the current business priorities for the booking system.
Having gained a good understanding of both sides of the problem and identified key top-level issues, priorities, and personalities within the organization, the team presented the stark reality to all in a joint session to create a new baseline of understanding in the organization. From this low point, it was possible to refocus all efforts on achieving best results rather than internecine struggle. The team formed bridges between appropriate points in the IT and business organization, creating collaborative teams with aligned objectives. These teams variously had responsibilities in governance, issue resolution and development prioritization, but always included a combination of business and IT staff with joint objectives.
This introspection and refocusing exercise led to a highly prioritized set of development tasks that could meet the immediate needs of customers, prior to the period of peak booking system demand, and without the performance issues of the previous system. With the crisis defused, and both working practices and relationships transformed, work continued on other features of the system, with the foundation now in place for a much improved future.
By using Agile principles to engage the business, right up to managing director and marketing director, the emphasis was moved from a purely technical one to looking at the overall problem, aligning business and technical staff in resolving the problems. The careful deployment of Agile methods restored the confidence in IT of the business stakeholders, and challenged it to engage and collaborate in a very different way.
A Match Made in Heaven
The relationship between business and IT is a complex one whose parameters will continue to develop and evolve over time. By taking into account this evolution and changing business requirements, Agile methods can play a big part in bridging the gap in communications and helping to stabilize the once rocky relationship between IT and the rest of the business. Facilitating and opening the lines of communication will lead to an effective partnership and lay the foundations for a match made in heaven, rather than hell.
Remember The Golden Rule of What Made the Relationship Work
Software and practices have no purpose without the ability to see and objectively resolve business driven need, be it regulatory compliance or competitive advantage. Without this need the marriage will never work. It seems amazing that the gap of understanding continues to lose track of fulfilling the prime objective ‘long term harmony' both parties getting what they want when they need it.

About the author
Jonathan Poole became CEO of Valtech in March 2007, following a re-organization of its international Group Board. Having joined Valtech in 2004, as Managing Director of the UK business, Jonathan has led the business through the creation of a complete services portfolio. The reality of delivering business agility has been the focal point of Valtech UK over the last 18 months, bringing many long term contracts and significant growth to the UK business. Jonathan's new remit is to replicate this business strategy throughout the international group of companies.



About the author

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