Taking Care of Business

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IN TODAY'S WORLD, a good many things must change for technology to have the kind of impact on business that most CEOs are hoping for. The demands most large organizations have placed on the typical IT department show a blatant lack of innovation in their vision of how their businesses will grow in the next century. Corporate leaders must realize that in order to survive the technology age they must continue to advance their technology systems. In order to do this, they must see IS departments no longer as problem solvers, but as business developers.

If most CTOs or CIOs could hear what business executives say about their organizations behind closed doors, they would be considerably less than pleased. No matter what the level of their effectiveness is or has been, many of the traditional stereotypes are still present: lack of speed, lack of business savvy or unnecessary expense. These stereotypes need to disappear if technology is to have the necessary level of impact on an organization for it to survive in the world of e-business.

The first thing any CTO or CIO needs to understand is that the operating imperative in the Web environment remains "speed is king." Most businesses aggressively use this tenet as a surrogate for planning, particularly when it comes to the new world of interacting with your customers via the Web. The instant access to millions of websites, combined with the innate human ability to generate new, innovative ideas on a daily basis have led us to a "gotta have the solution now" attitude that has resulted in the notion of Internet Time. In Internet Time, long-range planning is a thing of the past and real-time, reactive planning-marked by late-night, coffee- and pizza-fueled workweeks-is the name of the game. What most of us in the technology professions know, but are reticent to admit, is that with rare exception the current definition of Internet Time is an impossibility.

Trying to solve any complex problem on Internet Time is like saying, "Pay me now or pay me later." Few quick solutions will scale or solve a problem in its entirety. If they do, it is largely because they were tailored so tightly that the problem gets solved at the expense of scalability, maintainability or extensibility. And this relentless focus on the short term will only come back to haunt your company.

Yes, you can indeed shorten the calendar cycle at times, but only by paying a price. This may strain my personal credibility with the 100-hour-a-week, options-laden technology crowd, but pushing your team to 20-hour days is a short-term solution that is not sustainable as a business matures. The end result of consistently driving technology development on Internet Time is poor quality output and, ultimately, self-selection of key resources as those who are continually trying to deliver against unachievable targets decide to leave in pursuit of life balance and personal sanity.

The best way to avoid always working on Internet Time is for IT to conduct enough planning and forethought so that the architecture allows both rapid integration and long-term scalability. But this too has its risks. The development of an appropriate architecture has to proceed with all due haste to meet the needs of the business and cannot be done on the elongated time scales of searching for the Holy Grail. We must continually move to shorten cycle times wherever possible while avoiding the bane of every technology department's existence: the search for the right answer.

The fact is that in today's Web envvironment, planning is not the long suit of most corporations. However, in the long term it will be the key differentiator as businesses mature. Technology-related projects need to be adequately planned and defined in terms of scope, impact and investment. Most of the time, the planning level requirements do not consist of anything more than major function points, such as "provide an online pricing capability" or "deliver customer direct-order entry functionality." There are vastly different perspectives on what this means, and vastly different opinions on how much it will cost and how long it will take to deliver. From a technology perspective, you have to work with the key stakeholder to take this down to the appropriate level of detail and to set the appropriate level of expectation around cost and timing. It is the responsibility of the technology leaders to impart the appropriate understanding to the rest of their management teams. This can't happen in a day, week, month or year, but rather is an ongoing exercise to help translate the dictates, hazards and risks of ever-changing technologies into a rationale that the leadership in the rest of the business can understand.

This was never more apparent to me than at a recent gathering I attended where Joe Galli, former president and COO of Amazon.com, publicly admitted that he ran a large software company that happened to sell books and other consumer products. Accepting this reality, planning becomes the absolute maxim. In the Web environment, the current class of e-business leaders really does have a considerable portion of companies that work, think and act like traditional software houses. They think in terms of release cycles and size of the build effort. The trick is getting the business to accept this.

At the same time, technology departments need to make sure they understand who the customer really is. Many internally focused technology organizations still regard other internal departments in the business as their customers. But the ultimate customer is the paying customer. More than ever, this is the group that is directly impacted by changing technologies. Internal groups are your peers, key stakeholders, fellow shareholders and, hopefully, ardent supporters. They are not your customers, but they do need your help in determining what to provide to actual customers. The technology organization must gain a peer place at the table to help the rest of the team drive the right solutions.

We have all seen, and sometimes implemented, solutions that the business believed were in its best interest but instead locked the business into a series of bad choices. Why? Because the technology group did not effectively convey the impending limitations or was ill positioned within the organization to stop the slide. Real customers are too important, and the stakes too high, to have this happen. This is not to say that the productivity of your peers is not important-it absolutely is. However, as a technology leader and part of the management team for your business, you need to implement solutions to solve the real problems and challenges of the business with the guidance and counsel of all the strategic resources required to make it happen. Focus needs to move outward.

The chief technologist in the business must work with the business and his own organization to ensure that they are properly positioned to meet the challenges before them. Together they must overcome stereotypes, shorten cycle times and educate the business about technology. As a leader in the business, you must help the rest of the management team shift into the level of planning that will be required to drive the results your company is expecting from the Web.

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