What grocery shopping can teach us about business-aligned IT

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I sat across from the controller.. my first meeting with someone who would become a friend and advocate. She placed three proposals in front of me.

“I have these proposals.. all for system-wide upgrades. They range in price from $140,000 to $235,000. How do I know which one is right?”

I glanced briefly at the proposals and then we started talking about their business.

A small home builder. About 100 employees. Several satellite sales offices – basically for each community. SQL Server for their business line application, Exchange Server, file and print services, and a smattering of additional applications.

We talked about how they work now. Challenges they faced that they seemed unable to overcome or that created frustration.

The conversation turned to day to day operations in her own department and how she saw other departments working. We talked about workflow and how departments interacted and shared work and information.

“…there is a good chance some ingredients needed to make a complete meal will be missing and that other ingredients will sit in the back of the fridge and eventually go bad – never getting used…”

We discussed their vision. What new communities were planned in the next few years and business initiatives that were simply dreams… a gleam in the eye of the founders and the executive board.

At the end of about an hour, she said, “I never discussed most of this with the other vendors.”

Shopping List versus Recipe

I told her, “The problem, as I see it, is that you have three shopping lists but no recipe. The ingredients in any of these may be wonderful.. all good stuff. We can likely mix any of the lists of ingredients together and make something reasonably tasty. But there is a good chance some ingredients needed to make a complete meal will be missing and that other ingredients will sit in the back of the fridge and eventually go bad – never getting used.

This is often what occurs for businesses. They realize it is time to upgrade systems or they are growing, requiring an expansion of their environment. They have a technology vendor or bring in several and ask them to propose an upgrade to the environment.

Unfortunately, technology companies and many technologists will respond precisely to the identified problem.. upgrading existing systems. They are blinded by, what we call, the Myth of Limitations.

The Myth of Limitations

The Myth of Limitation is an idea I wrote about as part of Concept Over Process, our project development methodology. In short, clients often define what they need based on what they believe to be available. Technology professionals and vendors, for their part, respond with a solution that matches perfectly what they client is asking for.

In the end, the vendor provides exactly what they client requested. The client gets their solution but is left with the nagging sense that things could be better.

Cost-centric versus value-focused IT

The result of this oft-repeated interaction is a perception of IT as primarily a cost-center – placing the IT department, and those charged with it, in the unenviable position of defending and reducing costs rather than promoting and positioning value.

“In the absence of value, price is an issue.”

I’m not sure who originally said the above. It was given to me by friend and mentor, Kevin Bonn. It applies nicely to the IT dilemma above.

The danger of recipe thinking

If you want to move IT from a cost-focused to a value-focused, you need to dispel the Myth of Limitations and move from shopping list thinking to recipe thinking.

Here are 2 ways to do that.

Do not let the client define the technology

The Myth of Limitation is perpetuated when technology professionals assumes the client understands the technology and what is available.

I’m not suggesting  you should not listen to the client. But you need to step past the initial request and understand the business need, the workflow, and operationally, why the request is being made.

Ask them to explain what they do broadly and non-technically, how they interact with internal and external parties (other employees and departments as well as outside vendors and customers).

This, of course, is simpler if you actually have an interest in what they do. That’s the silver-bullet for you as a technology professional. Not just empathy with your customers but an actual desire to understand their business.

Try departmental immersion

If you want to gain a deep understanding of the business and how it actually operates – including its interaction and use of technology, departmental immersion may be the answer.

It is one thing to sit in a meeting and ask the customers to tell you about their work. It is another thing entirely to sit with them and watch their day. Watch their use – and their misuse and under-use – of technology. See how they interact with their co-workers and outside contacts.

Do the tools you’ve provided in IT streamline this interaction or create barriers?

Departmental immersion creates empathy and understanding. Furthermore, it helps IT professionals recognize the Myth of Limitations more readily – at the initial meeting level. They become business innovators rather than technologist.. and there is a difference.

Business alignment can be achieved

For more than 20 years I’ve listened to and taken part in conversations about aligning IT with the business. It can be achieved but, the impetus is on the IT professional, not the business unit. It is both a philosophical and functional shift.

Stop thinking in terms of technical pieces that need improvement; instead, think business operations and value. And stop trying to learn the business in a meeting; instead, meet the business where the business happens.

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