When Worlds Collide

In theory, IT personnel and the business users they support have common goals. Yet, more often than not, the relationship between the two groups is tense.

Business and IT teams thrown together often end up like Woody Allen’s immortal description: “The lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”

According to the business folks, IT projects always overrun, cost too much, and under-deliver. As for the techies’ opinion of their business users … well, they’re a bunch of woolly-heads who cannot make up their mind about what they want, and whine when they are given what they asked for.

A sign that things are not rosy is in the very language used: IT people call their customers “users.” What is the only other industry to do this? The narcotics business.

In The Beginning

What is the source of this antagonism? It starts with communication. Sending IT people on business courses to improve their grasp of business concepts and language would be a start.

Another culprit is the functional specification document — that dossier outlining the user’s requirements, laden with diagrams of boxes and arrows, and sufficiently thick enough to be used as a doorstop.

Indeed, this is often where they end up. Even if well written, the gap between specification and actual systems delivery is so long that the business requirements have changed greatly.

The issue is not just one of two groups failing to share a common language, though that certainly contributes. IT is famed for its acronyms, but business folks are little better, happy to chat about NPVs, EBITDA, KPIs, POS and the like.

For example, the key issue with the functional spec is not the spec itself, but what and when it delivers. There is too long a delay between the written and agreed upon functional design specifications and the user actually seeing something transpire on screen.

Case in point: according to industry analysts, a typical enterprise data warehouse project costs $3 million and takes 16 months — almost a year and a half from start to finish. From there it may be a year from functional spec to production system. And data warehouses are typically modest in size, compared to CRM or ERP (another journey into alphabet soup!) implementations.

By the time the hard-pressed IT teams finally deliver the first fruits of their labor, they are inevitably depressed to find the numbers make no sense to the business user, and even if they did, that an organizational change a few weeks back has rendered the data obsolete.

A Better Tomorrow

There’s hope, however. For example, Intelsat, a leading provider of satellite communications services worldwide gathered a cross-functional team of IT and business people together and used sophisticated data warehousing technology that dramatically reduced the turn-around time between iterations of the system.

By holing-up in a room together, along with their technology vendors, the team took full advantage of the software’s iterative capabilities to ensure versions of the system could be viewed simultaneously by all participants.

The team went through regular, rapid iterations. Week by week, the team gathered to review the data to resolve any discrepancies before a similar view was produced a week later. With each week that went by, the technology issues reduced in scope and the business-related discussions increased as the system came closer and closer to meet the user’s ideas of what they wanted.

The system was now able to provide the information needed to address previously unanswered questions such as the amount of discounts given in a month and the profitability of each customer. As a result of all of these efforts, Intelsat was able to realize millions of dollars of business benefit by tapping the right people, process and technology.

In the end the first version of the project was delivered in just 30 days, with later iterations delivering progressively more value over the subsequent months.

This success can be attributed to having the business people engaged not only at the start, but also at each step in the process, to make each version better and better. Changes to the business were addressed during the project rather than at the end, leading to greater collaboration within the groups and a much lower frustration level between them.

The lesson from this highly successful project, which has already won a major industry award, is that a high degree of interaction between IT and the business, enabled by software that can cope with change rapidly, can reconcile those traditional adversaries, the business and IT folks.

With collaborative support, projects can also deliver against seemingly impossible timeframes. By using the most modern technology effectively and coupling that technology with close involvement from, and collaboration with, their business customers, IT departments can quickly deliver systems to their business customers and dramatically improve their own credibility.

Andy Hayler is founder and chief strategist for Kalido, an enterprise software company that provides data warehousing and master data management solutions for Global 2000 companies. A 15-year veteran of data modeling, warehousing and integration projects, Hayler was named a Red Herring Top 10 Innovator in 2002.