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Is it time to abolish IT?

One business manager described his company's IT organization as a dysfunctional help desk that kept growing in cost and declining in service. It could not provide timely support for changing business needs and the work it did was often of poor quality. No wonder the company decided to outsource their IT organization. What enterprise would fund a poorly functioning business support role that is not core to the "real" business? This question leads to another: Should businesses bother investing in non-core support functions? Why not outsource them? Abolish IT and let business units buy the support they want as a standard set of services. Let businesses get value through centralized purchasing of services instead of centralized control of support. In this case, the business wins and the support organization with the best price and service wins.

There are problems with this perspective. The operational side of the business doesn't always see value in the services IT provides. IT projects and services are often not perceived as being aligned well with strategic business initiatives. Clear links between business goals and IT spending may be missing. Outsourcing IT comes with its own set of challenges, but are they any more difficult to manage than the increasing costs and lagging response that businesses perceive in their IT support? From this perspective, it seems that IT is not a full contributor to the real work of the business. As a non-core support function, it would be best for the business to have IT compete with outside capabilities on service and price.

If this represents a valid perspective on IT, then it may be time to abolish IT. But we need to ask ourselves if IT has a more central role to play in the business. IT can be its own worst enemy. If IT departments cast themselves in a supporting role, they will never be perceived as critical to the business' success. IT should absolutely not be defined as a support organization. This is the heart of the problem. IT is not a support organization for the business; IT is the business. As Art Caston, co-author of Paradigm Shift: The New Promise of Information Technology (by Don Tapscott and Art Caston, New York: McGraw Hill, 1993), recently said, "Business strategy is IT strategy." Consider this: In the financial services field most products have a strong information component. In other businesses, the timely flow and use of information is critical to the operation of the business. The current trend of tightly coupling a company to its customers and suppliers requires the alignment of IT capability to strategic company initiatives. IT can make a direct contribution to corporate goals and growth of market share if it is aligned with the business, giving it its best opportunity to deliver responsiveness, effectiveness and efficiency.

The best way to align IT with the business is enterprise architecture (EA). Caston notes, "The real value of EA is to allow you to design an agile enterprise—one that is composed of modular components that can be reconfigured to match business opportunities." EA helps you accomplish this by providing enterprise-wide planning models and guidance for executives, strategists, consultants, analysts and designers. It lets you establish common vocabulary and definitions. It provides a complete and integrated picture of all essential enterprise capabilities. It helps break down organizational barriers by identifying common interests. It helps the business assess strategic opportunities and create business cases. It provides the context in which to structure programs and projects aligned with strategic drivers and performance measures. It also provides governance criteria for project and program execution.

With enterprise architecture, strategic business goals become the drivers of alignment throughout the organization. Using these goals, we define the business needs and markets. We take this information and map it to the operational functions (not processes) needed to support the business goals. Caston notes that "operational functions focus on the 'what' of the business," which is more stable than the ever-changing processes that are used to implement the operations. After defining the operational functions, we define the systems needed to support them in their support of the business goals. As we do this, we can decide which systems will be automated and which will be manual. For systems that will be automated, we look for commonalities within and across domains. This activity will help us prioritize our work according to business needs and identify high-value system components that will serve the needs of multiple systems and drive reuse in our systems development. Finally, we define the appropriate supporting technology infrastructure for our automated systems. This approach provides a "boardroom-to-code" enterprise architecture that allows us to implement the highest priority systems for the business most efficiently and responsively. The alignment provided by the architecture lets the business respond to changing market needs more quickly and more efficiently while maximizing the reuse of existing resources.

Enterprise architecture lets IT find its rightful place within the organization. It becomes clear that IT cannot be relegated to a support role. It is an integral part of the business. Its value and contribution can be measured in business terms. According to the Meta Group: "Through 2005, the primary justification for enterprise architecture will be the business value derived from integration of separate business and IT planning processes into a unified enterprise architecture planning and execution function. Business value sourcing will replace traditional return-on-investment and total-cost-of-ownership measures as the primary metric for measuring the success of the enterprise architecture."

Is enterprise architecture a business issue? In their book Competing for the Future (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1994), Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad highlight the importance of strategic goals, identifying core competencies to support them and aligning all parts of the business with them. While they may not use the words "enterprise architecture," the purpose of their approach to business competitiveness through strategic planning and competency alignment and the purpose of EA are closely allied. Meta Group predicts that "by 2003, 40% of G2000 enterprises will move from narrowly defined technical architectures to holistic enterprise architectures that encompass the business, information, application, and domain architectures. Hypercompetitive, fast-change organizations will evolve their cultures to focus on speed of solution delivery, innovation and adaptability in optimizing their enterprise value network." In simple terms, competitiveness will drive businesses to change the way they operate. EA will provide businesses the flexibility they need in the marketplace. Businesses that fail to exploit enterprise architecture will have their lunch eaten by those that do.

Still, challenges remain in moving both the enterprise and the IT organization from where they are today to where they need to be. EA is not just an IT project. It is often part of a business transformation program. Buy-in and support from business managers is essential. According to the Meta Group: "Through 2004, enterprise architecture (EA) success will be driven by the extent to which corporate line managers comprehend, support, and enforce the architecture. EA efforts that are not successful in gaining line management support will fail, regardless of the architecture's design and engineering quality." In IT, we often give lip service to supporting standards and architecture, but we actually place value on running code. We need to come to the realization that our architecture is the business. As John Zachman, creator of the Zachman Framework, said, a "reason for lack of architecture is the enterprise has not yet discovered that the design of the system is the design of the enterprise; and if the system can't change, the enterprise can't change!" Both the IT organization and the enterprise need to understand the critical role enterprise architecture has to play in helping the business achieve its strategic goals.

So should we abolish IT? I think the answer is yes: Let's abolish the concept that IT is a non-core support organization. IT is not a support function; IT is the business. It's time for IT to take its rightful place as a core part of the business. Businesses need to be flexible and adaptable to be competitive in today's marketplace. They must be able to discern and take advantage of not-so-obvious opportunities. They need their capabilities focused, from top to bottom, on achieving their strategic goals. EA provides the mechanism for achieving these critical business goals. As Zachman noted, "architecture is a survival issue because of complexity and high rates of change, and many enterprises are failing for lack of it."

About the Author

John D. Williams is a contributor to Application Development Trends. He is president of Blue Mountain Commerce, a Cary, N.C.-based consulting firm specializing in enterprise, domain and application architectures. He can be reached via e-mail at jwilliams@bluemountaincommerce.com.

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