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Strong to the Core

Strong to the Core

Getting the basics right is a prerequisite to doing all the fancy stuff, such as taking advantage of information analytics,

Gartner continues to receive enquiries from frustrated IT leaders and their business bosses seeking to up the performance of their IT organizations. Yet recent research reveals that CIOs are surprisingly sceptical about the strength of their own core operations. Of the 1440 CIOs that responded to the annual Gartner CIO Survey in 2007, only 9 percent strongly believe that their IS organization's service levels are meeting business expectations.

The good news is that the path to building a better core of IT is at least navigable. CIOs have achieved a desired outcome by shifting their attention to the three basics - technology, processes and people - as the core evolves. This is a two-part journey. As the operational strength of IT improves, CIOs and IT leaders then shift their focus from building operational excellence in the core of IT to building IT's contribution to the business.

CIOs build the IT core from the inside out. A good place to start untying the Gordian knot of poor performance is measurement. Without knowing exactly what the problem is, it's very difficult to know where to begin and focus your efforts. Initially, measurement is inwardly focused on examining the relative performance and interactions between the three key elements of the IT core.

  • Technology: improving the reliability of the technical infrastructure

  • Processes: creating repeatable operational processes

  • People: building the needed core technical skills
Unfortunately, this is a contact sport. Technical performance is the main driver of quality of service, cost and flexibility. At the operational level, CIOs, or their trusted lieutenants, play the role of "super" technical operations manager and are accountable to operations executives. Or in extreme cases, they may exercise direct operational responsibility for IT performance and service levels.

Discussions between the CIO or business leader and the business executives and other business peers have to reflect the operational reality at this stage. Discussion of any topic not related to IT's ability to deliver basic IT services is discouraged. A big portion of the conversation also should focus on business expectations for IT services and service levels.

While technology infrastructure establishes the limits of IT, process performance underpins quality and cost-effective service delivery. It is possible, with the right procedures, to wring out quite good performance from the very ropy hardware if the operational team goes about things in the right way. Focusing on creating repeatable, reliable IT processes pays dividends by providing a foundation for incremental improvement and, ultimately, the delivery of repeatable and hopefully improved results.

The choice of which process framework to adopt is always a thorny issue. Most enterprises need multiple process frameworks. Even with its size and scope, for example, ITIL version 3 is not detailed enough for IT's activities and deliberately excludes application development project management. The right answer seemingly is to adopt a single lead standard - be it Six Sigma, ITIL or what have you - and then to adapt other standards to fit within the lead standard.

In addition to frameworks, there are organizational solutions to process-based problems. CIOs and IT leaders routinely improve their project delivery by establishing a project management office (PMO). The PMO typically operates at a couple of levels. At the operational level, the PMO supports management of IT projects, offering support to the project managers. At a more managerial level, the PMO emphasizes the standardization of processes, reporting and issues tracking.

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