If you are like me you are becoming numb to the constant technology hype. There are so many development languages, database systems, storage options, security products, cloud services, etc. I appreciate technology as much as any technology enthusiast but how do you sort through the hype and thoughtfully choose the technologies and services that really matter?

As technology professionals we should keep in mind what really matters is driving better business outcomes. We need to ask the right questions and understand what value is driven by technology decisions and how the organization will go about achieving it. Let’s talk about the what and the how.

[Note: I feel strongly that each technology decision within the enterprise should be connected to a business need and ultimately enable the business strategy. The key is a strong understanding of the business and the user community.]

The What…

Occasionally technology decisions are made based on trends – technology looking for a problem. Thoughtful technology decisions are based on satisfying a business need. The key is understanding the business need before researching and selecting technologies. This is an obvious statement but for some reason it’s often overlooked. Typically the need falls in one of five general categories (see below). I won’t elaborate on these categories because they are self-explanatory.

Business Need Categories

  1. Provide information to make better decisions
  2. Improve productivity by enabling sharing of information or automating business processes (there are other ways to improve productivity)
  3. Drive out cost
  4. Enable new products or services
  5. Manage risk and enable regulatory compliance (security of services and data assets)

Working with business partners to obtain agreement on the business need is critical. Whether it’s to improve the efficiency of a business process or provide better customer demographics, business consensus is needed on the problem and opportunity. (The opportunity is the potential benefit to the business if the need is satisfied.) This consensus will make it easier to obtain project funding and ensure the right personnel are available to work on the project when the time comes.

After understanding what need must be satisfied and the potential opportunity, the next step is understanding how to satisfy it.

The How…

The how focuses on understanding the user and their business process. This is where the heavy lifting comes in and where technology solutions often miss the boat. The first step is understanding the user and how they work. Where will they utilize this technology? What are the conditions they work in (e.g., field personnel working in adverse weather conditions)? What other systems do they interact with to get their job done? What devices do they currently use? Answers to these questions are important to drive a simple user experience that optimizes employee productivity. Identifying this information upfront speeds up delivery of technology solutions by eliminating the back-and-forth during solution design and implementation.

The next step, documenting and understanding the as-is and to-be process, is absolutely critical. If the to-be process is not well-defined there will be significant challenges when the solution is implemented. Why is it important? How do you know what to build if the to-be process is not well-defined? The to-be process helps to identify inputs and outputs, what data is relevant, how it’s processed (e.g., business logic, event processing, workflow approvals, etc.), and what system integration is required. This information enables the Application and Data Architect to effectively plan the solution.

[ Note: One critical mistake that must be avoided is applying technology to a broken process. This will lead to an overly complex technology implementation wasting a lot of time and money. No one wins in this situation and technology typically becomes the culprit. Stop these projects before they begin! ]

Completing these steps may appear to be a lot of work, and it is! Doing this right will drive better business outcomes on a consistent basis. Taking shortcuts will lead to suboptimal solutions and minimize the value of technology. If you don’t address these items upfront you will be following up with “fixes” after initial deployment for months to come – a very typical but painful exercise.

I understand this is basic stuff – technology 101. However, several recent technology discussions that started with “shouldn’t we purchase X, it’s a hot technology”. (It’s easy to get caught up in the hype.) I directed the conversation to what business problem does it solve for us and we agreed that maybe it isn’t the right time for that technology in our environment. Again, I love technology as much as anyone but I’m accountable to make sure we are focused on business results.

In summary, what really matters is the value technology brings to the business and, more specifically, the user community. Understanding what needs are important and executing in a thoughtful manner is the key to driving better business outcomes.

Posted by Karl

2 Comments

  1. All well stated. However, what about the business need of “make CxO happy”? That has to be a factor in any solution that is developed, too… A relatively recent example is the infiltration of iPhones and iPads into corporate America. Was there a “valid” business case for these phones to be used over BlackBerries or other solutions? Not really, from a business standpoint.

    This “solution” is developed by the users, and then ordered by management to be supported. At that point, you have no choice but to say “yes, sir!” and then figure out what you are going to do. In the above example, that led companies to find whatever middleware was available, able to be implemented quickly, and (hopefully) cheap. This is a bit of an extreme case, in that it was a popular product that users were able to purchase themselves and become attached to before using it in a business sense. However, anyone that has worked in the industry has had experience with the “magazine manager” syndrome – Manager “X” sees an article in a magazine, and says “Why don’t we have this already?”

    Ideally, the technology staff should be ahead of the trends, but in practice any large company will always have someone that is trying to use the latest shiny gadget. In the past, IT was able to keep most of it out of the enterprise, but now (with BYOD as an official “trend”) that’s impossible.

    When developing any solution, this is also something that must be kept in mind – even if it isn’t initially presented as an option, the user may have a “solution” that they are expecting. At that point, it becomes important to manage the user…

    Reply

    1. @balentius – You raise a valid point. In today’s environment commercial solutions(e.g., iPhones, mobile applications, cloud services) are making their way into the enterprise. Additionally, technology marketing can be really good and makes the implementation of new business solutions appear to be a breeze! One of the key’s to combating this is for IT to be recognized as a trusted advisor to the business. This level of trust will give IT more “flexibility” to say no and offer valid alternatives.

      I realize this approach is not practical for all organizations because some “CxOs” can be a challenge. Where CxOs are a challenge IT has to anticipate these requests and be prepared to act, if needed. (Tip: Getting to know CxO Executive Assistants will help with a heads-up on what they are reading and thinking.)

      Lastly, many organizations are poorly staffed and personnel don’t have time to prepare for these situations. In this scenario there is no good answer and the situation can become untenable. When it gets to that point IT professionals have to ask themselves if it’s time to make a change. Why stay in a situation where it’s impossible to succeed?

      Reply

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