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Management Strategies

02:34 PM
Jasmine Noel, Ptak, Noel & Associates
Jasmine Noel, Ptak, Noel & Associates
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Putting IT Theory Into Practice

Charting a brilliant alignment course is easy; getting it implemented is the real challenge

For the past two decades, IT survival has meant management organized and optimized around specific IT resources, such as networks, PCs, databases and Unix servers. But as executives now know, the rules have changed -- someone moved the cheese. CIO survival requires strategies that are less technology-focused and more aligned with initiatives and services that are meaningful to the business.

CIOs are responding. They've created liaisons with business units to determine overall IT strategies and ways IT improvements should be reported to the business. Why then aren't these new strategies put into practice more often? It turns out that creation of a brilliant IT-business alignment strategy is the easy part. The bigger challenge is getting the strategy implemented and accepted within an IT organization that's currently operating with a different set of criteria.

Most IT organizations already have many of the plans and products they need. What's missing is a coherent way to visualize how to fit those pieces together—and that's where a blueprint comes in. Tools like blueprints serve as the bridge between strategies and day-to-day tasks.

For example, Nexstar Financial Corp., a provider of mortgage services for banks and financial-services firms, already had management-software platforms in place to deliver online services and monitor performance. Still lacking was a solution to ensure that procedures and processes were followed consistently, according to Tom Schwent, director of technology infrastructure and operations. Using a blueprint, Schwent could better follow procedures. For instance, one blueprint mapped the process of handling IT equipment from purchase to deployment. Now, all inventory is logged into an online repository. Another blueprint mapped logging and tracking of outages and downtime using Hewlett-Packard's OpenView service desk.

Strategy maps and process blueprints are fairly common business-management tools. Harvard professor Robert Kaplan and David Norton of the Balanced Scorecard Collaboration have written extensively about strategy maps, including their latest book, Strategy Maps: Converting Intangible Assets Into Tangible Outcomes (Harvard Business School Press, 2004). However, these are still rare in CIO and IT circles. Until recently, most enterprises didn't consider IT a strategic department in need of such tools. Much of the innovation in IT-executive management and reporting was in applying to the IT situation lessons learned in supply-chain management, process modeling and customer-relationship management. Blueprints, along with scorecards and maps, are among the tools now coming into use.

The blueprints discussed here facilitate strategy implementations. They aren't created in a vacuum, nor should they create more work for managers. They combine IT-management functions -- such as monitoring, analyzing, securing and configuring systems -- with actual IT workflows, such as application life cycles or IT infrastructure-library process diagrams. The result is a single picture that directly relates to a specific business strategy. Whether it's business-service management, securing enterprise-computing assets, complying with government regulations or ensuring business continuity, a visual IT blueprint offers a powerful, explicit visualization tool for displaying how various IT workers support the C-team's alignment strategies; which IT problems will be resolved once the blueprint is fully deployed; and additional technologies or procedures required for smoother IT operations.

Defining the problem Getting started will depend on the enterprise's combination of industry requirements, corporate goals and response to external competitive and regulatory pressures. Business-service management, business continuity privacy or security compliance to government regulations, and employee-related change management are all examples of IT-business alignment strategies that could benefit from implementing blueprints. Key considerations when determining where to start include:

  • An easily understandable and identifiable business problem. Historically, it's extremely difficult for CIOs to get funding for IT-process improvement projects. However, when IT links what it needs to a specific business challenge, gaining support is generally easier. Solving a business problem provides the business-value proposition for the project and demonstrates IT's value to the enterprise beyond its role as a technology-maintenance organization.
  • A readily quantifiable measure of risk and reward. A measure of success provides the basis for a conclusive proof of concept.
  • Senior-level, visible executives who are seriously affected by the pain. The senior person should become the project champion, acting as a vocal advocate of IT's efforts to solve that business problem.

Consider how a financial-services firm with J2EE online applications developed a blueprint for a business-service management strategy. During the planning meetings, the CIO recognized a few trends affecting how his administrators managed online services. For example, the applications-development team already had a close working relationship with various business units. As new business requirements were articulated, the team quickly developed new application modules.

Also, the J2EE developers were pushing new applications and updates into production at a lightning speed of once every two months. As a result, the operations team continued to rely heavily on the development organization for ongoing management. So the blueprint had to clearly show the interaction among the development, testing and operations organizations.

Finally, the online applications depended on multiple, interacting platforms—Web servers on Linux, J2EE application and database servers on Unix, and various networking devices. Each was managed by a separate, siloed department. However, IT operations neither monitored nor managed the interaction between platforms, which was lengthening problem-resolution times. The blueprint needed to consider a new operations category -- service operations -- independent of the technology silos.

The resulting blueprint for business-service management at this financial-services firm shows the major process components necessary to introduce and manage a business service. It also represents how the different departments work together. Other, supplemental levels of detail can be added as needed for planning, implementation, product identification, evaluation, comparison and so on (see chart).

PaymentOne Corp. is a leading payment-service provider, offering complete outsourced billing and customer-revenue optimization solutions. PaymentOne's services depend on a multi-platform environment -- including Cisco, Dell, Java, Linux, Microsoft, Sun and Unix -- that handles millions of transactions generated daily by its customers. Managing business services requires pinpointing problems quickly and accurately. To do this, the company deployed a single root-cause analysis solution across all the platform silos. This allowed quick identification of anomalous performance behaviors on any platform. Problem diagnostics were completed faster, and application downtime decreased.

In another case, a leading defense manufacturer consolidated multiple help desks into a single, comprehensive service desk. The results: shorter response time to business requests for changes, improved service-level delivery and lower overall operational costs -- all with a single project. The support-center manager's advice was to settle on the support objects and processes before beginning any product evaluations. Then, they had to determine the process standard to be followed and use the chosen standard to set up processes. This effort would provide a good indication of what product features were needed for automation.

What was common to both scenarios was the creation of a blueprint of the IT processes that ultimately supported the business goal.

Realizing ROI

Of course, neither enterprise nor IT executives have patience with multiyear IT projects that show returns only upon completion. There has to be some personal return on the effort required to incorporate new strategies, technologies, or workflows.

In this environment, discrete solutions with short deployment times and value propositions that can be realized within a few months have to be created. The entire blueprint solution may still require an extended deployment time, but it's best done project by project, with each project resolving a pain and delivering quick ROI.

In addition, IT blueprints and related solutions can be leveraged across multiple business units. This is easiest to picture with the business-service management concept. An enterprise with 10 different business units, each with a different online service that must be introduced and managed, doesn't need 10 different blueprints and solutions. Only the details differ -- the service-level items monitored, reporting mechanisms and issues resolved. The entire IT organization benefits as it refines its processes with every new service brought online.

It's also important not to underestimate the benefits of improving processes within IT when calculating ROI. A recent analysis by software provider Wily Technology of the J2EE application-management market showed many organizational benefits of IT processes. The study found that fewer managers with processes in place escalate problems through their bosses. In addition, they rely on group meetings and calls to triage problems. The inevitable conclusion is that problem resolution with processes in place involves fewer individuals -- experts are called only when needed. Therefore, the organization as a whole runs more efficiently and cost-effectively.

Ultimately, IT-business alignment doesn't happen in a single project, but as an evolving image of how the IT organization and technology contribute to enterprise success. IT organizations using blueprint methodologies will have not only a strategy, but also a means to implement effectively the strategy while leveraging existing resources and skills. They'll also be able to demonstrate how the technology and business pieces of the enterprise relate and support one another.

Jasmine Noel is a principal at Ptak, Noel & Associates.

Please send comments on this article to [email protected].

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