Break business processes into components and aligning IT with the business will be a whole lot easier.
As a columnist in CIO, and the facilitator of the InTEP management group, I frequently get calls from marketing people who want to introduce me to some new product or service. Recently I received a call from James, a former colleague at Unisys and we organised to meet.
Over coffee James spoke about something that tallied with what I have long felt.
One of the advantages of running InTEP is the opportunity to observe how IT is handled in many companies. Over the past nine years I have come to the conclusion that when IT is well run there are some common hallmarks. One of these is a focus on process. In my opinion good IT operations centre around an appreciation of the processes upon which both the business and the IT department depend. When you understand the process, you recognise where and how IT can assist the business to do it better.
James introduced me to an artificial intelligence product that had been created under the old Offsets Program. The Challenger space shuttle tragedy had highlighted the inability of sophisticated equipment to recognise impending disaster. Yet it was reasoned that it should be possible for a computer to identify that something was out of place and to take remedial action. The resultant software entailed the establishment of a library of processes from which a new system could be constructed.
However, what intrigued me was that this might be an answer to the speed of change that is now endemic in business. Often organisations find their IT systems are something of a straightjacket that impedes change. If company A and company B merge, changing the IT systems to meet the process needs of the new organisation is no easy task. In fact, the organisation may be on the acquisition trail again before the "merged" IT systems have been modified. The end product is an IT department constantly on its back foot.
James spoke about a software development approach that centred on marrying process routines together in a "Lego-like" building approach. He felt this enabled the organisation to more easily adapt to a changed business environment. If the company changes the way it does a certain activity then the process component of that task can be removed and replaced rather than having to implement a new system from scratch. He termed this adaptive workflow and argued that it could generate business systems for the new entity in months rather than years.
I have no way of verifying his claims, and after 20 years in IT I know that many concepts that sound great in theory often fail in the real world. Yet I left our coffee with the thought that the potential flexibility of such an approach had a great deal going for it. As we all know, one of the perennial challenges for CIOs is to align IT with the business. If business changes and systems changes can be aligned in unison then, I suspect, most business executives should regard that as an IT solution worth investigating.
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