A Business Technology Place

The view from here. Amazing things I see in IT.

15753367794_7a21f5af6a_zWhen I chose to pursue a career in information technology it wasn’t because I knew what the view would look like from the inside. I was, and still am, enamored with creating and building things. I’ve learned over time that the connection I feel with a new solution is just a piece of the IT view from the inside. The ability to create and build things turns into experiences and stories of connecting people with systems and solutions. That means the view is filled with challenges, successes, and failures. But the complete view includes the user and the solution. In other words the view is bigger than me. The view is bigger than the creation. The view is a complete environment in which me, the creation, and user are all participants.

Here are a few of my favorites views from inside IT:

  1. IT professionals making systems made by different manufacturers talk to each other in a meaningful way.

I stress “meaningful way” because during a translation activity it’s usually fairly simple to map data fields between two systems. The more difficult part is getting the two disparate systems to interpret the same data equally. That involves business logic and rules which are set by the two users.

Years ago I participated in building the first bank site extension that allowed a checking account holder to connect through online banking to a site that allowed them order checks.  The check ordering site was completely different than online banking. Behind the scenes we built a bridge of information about the account holder and their checking account plan. This governed what check catalog they viewed, how much the checks cost, and imprint that was placed on the checks. When it all worked it was like view with different landscapes meeting together to form a new transition in the scenery.

  1. IT professionals mapping a manual workflow to an electronic workflow so that it runs faster and more reliably.

In recent weeks some of my team members automated the ability to send coupon redemption data electronically to NCH. This ability removes days of manual processing of redemption data and coupon codes. Another example was creating the ability send a purchase order to vendor, receive their acknowledgement and shipping notification, and then send the corresponding billing electronically to the customer. Before this happened each step was done by hand via email, match-up process, and mailing.

What’s the view look like when things like this happen? I see savings in labor dollars and a reduction in time to complete a task. That means competitive services in the marketplace and meaningful solutions to customers. It’s like a body of water that’s blue and a reflection of the creation around it.

  1. IT professionals developing a technology based solution but learning more about the underlying business process than when they started.

To me, it’s magical when an IT programmer converses with a finance manager about the rules of a lock box transfer to the bank, accounts receivable balances, and cash flow. It’s amazing when an IT database administrator discusses sales entered, shipped sales, and billed sales with a Sales manager to help determine the right filters and views to show on reports. The point is that being in IT is more than programming 1s and 0s on a screen. It’s about understanding the subject matter of the business. That means learning and connecting with business owners to deliver solutions they will use. .

I still love what I do. I love the views it gives me of work and life. What about you? What do you see in your view?

 

Onward and upward!

 

Photo Credit. https://flic.kr/p/q158py – By Douglas Scortegagna via Creative Commons.

 

A manager’s guide to the annual plan

Creating the annual plan is like solving a puzzle.

Participating in the annual plan has always been a challenge to me to a certain extent for two reasons:

  1. In the past, I viewed the activity as more forecasting than planning. The plan was a list of goals and objectives that we hoped to achieve but we never knew what changes in the business might alter the plan. Inevitably something like customer mergers, acquisitions, unplanned results, or even customer defections would alter our plan. For me it was puzzle challenge number 1.
  2. The annual plan received focused attention before starting the year and then became a dead-document.  In this sense I’m referring more to the goals and objectives. I worked many years where we didn’t relook at the goals and objectives again until it was time to write the annual performance reviews. It was always a mystery to me why we didn’t go back and look those plans. This was puzzle challenge number 2.

Working the puzzle.

The good news for me is that I like working puzzles. I’ve always enjoyed the journey of solving puzzles even more than the end result. As with most cases in business processes and management there isn’t one best way to create an annual plan. There are many variables such as culture and industry that will influence the approach. As my responsibilities have grown over time I’ve been able to influence the annual planning process more with my thoughts and learnings.PlanDoCheckAct

I like the A3 problem solving method that is used by lean practitioners. The method looks for root causes with an attempt to prevent recurrence. It addresses the dead-document issue by including steps for checking and following-up on the solution. The approach is also attempts to simplify the whole process by focusing on what is most important. Get the plan on a single page and then execute it.

Creating the annual plan.

For the 2016 year I used past learnings and tried an approach to put the annual plan in A3 format (source:Lean.org).

Step 1 – Get input from other department heads to focus on alignment.

Nothing spells dysfunction like an IT department out-of-synch with other business departments. I’ve always said that IT is a service organization. It exists to enable the other business functions to be successful. Asking for input on business objectives from marketing, operations, customer service, sales, and finance should be a natural first step to create the IT plan, roadmap, and budget.

Step 2 – Learn, repeat, and stretch.

The A3 approach for planning focuses on a structure approach to thinking about the plan. It allows us to state what was learned, repeat what works and to stretch to set new baselines.

Plan Template

Step 1 – Targets/Goals for the coming year (where are we going?)

Step 2 – Results from last year (where we came from , hits and misses )

Step 3 – Reasoning for new plan and targets (what we learned)

Step 4 – Action plans for the coming year (how to get there)

Step 5 – Unresolved issues/questions (items that need more clarification and research)
Big plans are complicated to write and can leave the audience overwhelmed. The A3 approach keeps the message concise and focused on the most important things. When I wrote the A3 based plan it required that I make decisions about what to purposefully include. That doesn’t mean that our group doesn’t have other planned actions, but those actions should support the larger initiatives. The plan is intended to give business partners a chance to see a consolidated statement of how the IT group intends to contribute to the overall business objectives.Step 3 – Get the story on one page.

Step 4 – Review the plan with other department heads to check and confirm understanding of alignment.

The plan ends right back where it started. The best way to check understanding is to confirm the plan with the other department heads. It’s a quality check. But it’s also a touch-point for IT-business alignment and the start of the momentum to execute the plan activities.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: Jurgen Appelo

 

The truth about IT managers.

Part 2 of 3 – The Truth is…. I’ll share some truths about developers, managers, and processes in IT.

Just what is an IT Manager?

The management career path in the Information Technology field is often a major “fork in the road” or decision point. Individuals weigh options between maintaining their technical skills and job assignments with responsibility for managing people. In IT, it’s not uncommon to find workers that have zero-interest in management. The technology is what attracted them to IT and they prefer to interface with technology more than people. For those workers that choose the other side of the fork in the road there is an important lesson to be learned; Managing IT requires more than managing technology and technology workers.

We need to redefine what we expect of IT Managers.

A large component of IT management is comprised of understanding technology and managing the people that implement technology. But the most successful IT managers are those that align with and create partnerships with other business units in the organization. Managers from marketing, finance, operations, customer service, and other areas of the business want true partnership from their IT management counterparts. IT managers that just provide a technology service, follow IT rules and processes, and enforce standards are missing the mark. When that happens, IT becomes an island in the organization. Other business units start to look for ways around IT (often called Shadow IT). Business partnership is the place where IT managers connect the technology with solutions that the technology provides. The technology exists to connect people-to-people and businesses-to-customers.

Some truths about IT Managers.

Getting up every morning to work with technology is a good place to be. Opportunities abound to be the hero. But with every opportunity is the risk of being the goat as well. IT managers can be viewed as value-add or expensive overhead. These boundaries and risks provide the framework for a few truths that I’ve learned:it management

  • IT managers wonder is it possible to please everyone. Business leaders want IT managers to have their IT organizations accomplish more, use more nimble processes, and cost less money. At the same time security and compliance officers want more controlled changes, more thorough processes, and added costs for additional security.
  • IT managers are caught somewhere between run-the-business and grow-the-business. Traditionally business leaders wanted IT to keep information flowing through the organization so that business orders are processed, produced, and billed. But business environments change and products mature. When customers start looking for new products and services, business leaders wants IT to help grow the business as well. On the income statement, IT is a cost center. The IT manager must prove the value-add of how they help grow-the-business by mapping their actions to ROI and profit.
  • IT managers struggle with prioritizing what’s important from what’s urgent. Internal customers create urgency with a variety of tactics when their routine is interrupted. Their urgency often interrupts IT managers from working on the important projects for the organization.

Next time you see your IT manager, say some kind words and help them build the IT-Business partnership.  At the end of the day, they want to make their customers happy and provide better solutions for everyone. It’s OK if you tell them that they need to work faster and cost less. They’ve heard it before and it gives them a little challenge. 🙂

Onward and upward!

 

What does the business require of me?

The question every IT professional should ask.

I think through this question quite a bit. It has significance in the equation of work satisfaction and success. It is fundamental in how every IT professional should approach their career.

What do my customers require of the Information Technology group?

Typically, we try to answer this question in terms of running the business and growing the business. I have lived the tug-of-war between providing stable systems that run the business and new systems that grow the business. It means being risk averse and cutting costs but yet taking risks and investing in new technologies. Can IT provide both and do both of them really well?

The irresistible force is growing the top line revenue of the company or finding new sources of revenue in an ever changing world.  But the immovable object is the need to keep existing systems running and to satisfy an ever growing list of compliance requirements. These two forces will compete for technology dollars and mindshare. .

But maybe I’m thinking about the answer in the wrong terms.

One of my guiding principles is that I want IT to be known for products and solutions over processes. This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in processes. But I believe that customers don’t care about the ActJustlyprocesses we use unless they receive the products and solutions that solve their needs. The discussion about processes and procedures is much easier when the customer sees that IT is acting as a true partner and bringing solutions to the table.

In the Old Testament book of Micah there is a well known verse that says:

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8

In context, this verse teaches that relationship comes before sacrifices. But it could easily be applied to the question “what does the business require of IT”? To act first in the interest of the customer not in the interest of IT (act justly). To act with kindness in those relationships with customers and business associates outside of IT (love mercy). To value partnership over arrogance and be more interested in a solution with compromise than ‘being right’(walk humbly).

When these pieces are in place then the conversation of what the business requires of IT changes. The relationship is described with terms like partnership, joint, and mutual. The approach to problem solving becomes enjoyable for both parties. I believe Micah’s teaching transcends time and places. The business requires IT to be in relationship with them first. Then work to solve for running the business and growing the business.

Onward and upward!

Using history to organize your teams

What does the history of man and the advancements of civilizations have to do with business?

I recently followed a recommendation to read Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The book was the winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction and provides theories and supporting arguments for why some civilizations throughout history survived and conquered other civilizations. Diamond supports the idea that societies persist and spread based on geographical and environmental factors rather than racial genetics.

Do business organizations parallel human societies?

On page 457 of the book Diamond explores the questions he received from many business leaders after they read his work. He sets-up the question as:

“What is the best way to organize human groups, organizations, and businesses so as to maximize productivity, creativity, innovation, and wealth? …. Should your collection of people be organized into a single group, or broken down into a small or large number of groups?”

Ah yes, one of the classic modern business dilemmas. Businesses are in a constant see-saw between a centralized and decentralized organization. Centralization is pushed to provide more standardization, economies of scale, and reduction of expenses. Decentralization is pushed to provide more innovation and closer customer relationships.

In his book, Diamond suggests that some level of fragmentation (decentralization) helped European advances in history because it created competition which led to innovation. Contrary to this, the unification of China appears to be a factor why it fell behind Europe in innovation during the colonization period. But India, which had even more fragmentation than Europe, didn’t advance as rapidly as Europe with technological innovations and colonization. That’s a very simplified look at Diamond’s discourse on the subject, but it leads him to suggest that the most optimal organizations have some level of decentralization in them.

The trick is to determine the right level of balance.

I promote a balance in a number of areas in the IT organization that I manage. This includes the number of in-house developers vs contract and “off-shore” developers, centralized software tools vs solution specific tools, and centralized processes vs sub-department processes.

photo credit: Leo Cullum

photo credit: Leo Cullum

A few things are certain with any approach:

  • People will point out the faults of the current organizational design and suggest that a change to another model is needed (based on the other model’s merits and not faults).
  • There is usually some level of second guessing by team members as they experience organizational results and look for ways to tweak the team setup to perform better.
  • There is a natural pull (almost like gravity!) that says we should organize differently. It’s the “always a better way” and “continuous improvement” approach to organization and processes.

I believe the answer depends on what you need from each sub-group in the organization.

IT, like other business departments, is further divided into group based on the type of service provided to customers. I believe groups like desktop/voice services and networking are best setup with a more central approach. This allows them to set to standards for equipment, general office software, voice equipment, etc. I look for this group to provide a consistent and predictable service to the organization. Less variety in what they support allows them to scale better.

The software development groups are tasked with providing innovation and helping the company be more competitive in the marketplace. As such, I like to have the software develop teams setup in a more decentralized organization. This gives them freedom to innovate and compete.

The project management, business analyst, and quality assurance groups benefit from a centralized approach as it helps them to reduce their toolsets and simplify processes. But they also benefit from a bit of decentralization so they can better match their processes to the software development teams.

The problems of any organizational design are always in the forefront to discuss, break-down, and analyze. I’m OK with that. As I said above, I think that’s a natural activity as we constantly look for ways to perform better. It’s neat to see correlations between Diamond’s study of human organization through history and the modern business world.  If you haven’t read Diamond’s book, it’s worth your time at least to skim and take-in some of the main theories.

Onward and upward!