Rebuilding the IT-Business Bridge for the Future of Work

One of the organisational issues holding back many firms trying to accelerate the digital transformation is the gap between IT/Digital functions and the wider business. The business needs to be able to trust IT to play a leading role in digital-driven business transformation, and without that trust and high levels of involvement, IT will find itself confined to maintenance and purchasing for digitally savvy future firms, whilst innovation happens elsewhere. To become a high-performing unit, delivering performance and value within a transparent relationship with the business, IT needs to look at new structures, culture and practices.

However, the fault doesn’t always rest only with IT leaders. In many cases, business executive share some of the blame … high-performing IT requires a good digital platform, and good platforms require discipline. If your approach to working with IT can be characterized by impatience, unreasonable expectations, or insisting on doing things your way, then you’ll need to think about how to change your side of the relationship.
From: Leading Digital by George Western and Didier Bonnet

Exacerbating the challenge is the fact that whilst technology is at the heart of digital transformation (a topic close to the top of many senior leaders priority lists), in many cases IT teams are not set up to support the type of transformation needed by the business. New models introduced to address this dichotomy, such as Gartner’s Bi-Modal approach, can introduce more problems than they solve. Setting stability against agility and legacy against emerging technology is focusing only on the structural issues within IT, not the culture and ways of working needed to make the relationship with key business stakeholders work.

What should the new relationship look like?

For the relationship between IT and the business to flourish, we need to begin by asking what new strategic capabilities are needed to reach the organisation’s goals. This may sound hard given the difficulty of affecting change in large organisations; but, with executive support, it is easy enough to start a conversation with the business about what capabilities it needs as it attempts to refactor internal services and become more connected. This can bring engagement benefits straight away, and help create the basis for a distributed approach to improvement. Developing a common, agreed language around future capabilities helps both sides to clearly communicate a direction of travel, alignment to strategy and commitment to a set of measurable goals.

Instead of bi-modal IT, think in terms of pace layering for different applications, projects and team structures to address different levels of scale and speed, and think in terms of a service-oriented architecture, networks and communities to connect teams and services laterally, rather than vertically through a hierarchical reporting system.

However, as with all new management techniques and ways of working, a one-size-fits-all approach is never going to provide exactly what an organisation needs, so how can you create your own structures, culture and practices to create a resilient, agile and strategically-aligned bridge between IT and the business?

A New Bridge?

The basic approach that we use is to work with IT teams and business teams to develop a common language based on business capabilities, usually expressed as human-readable ‘agile user stories for the organisation’. We want both sides to talk about what the organisation and its people need to be able to achieve, rather than technical features. We try to identify the underlying business capabilities that a project or a programme hopes to create, and then have a conversation with all stakeholders about what success looks like and which aspects of the capability both sides are responsible and accountable for developing.

This is something that needs to evolve and embed, rather than just being a ‘best practice’ approach to be followed slavishly. We need to develop a ’next’ practice mentality, because this is about co-developing a system / product that neither IT nor the business side can yet have full visibility of. But it is also ‘next’ practice because the team should work lean, collaboratively and with shared visibility, in a start-up way, focussing relentlessly on the product.

The closest IT precedent is perhaps the ‘war room’, but that is usually about getting out of a hole against a deadline, rather than forging mutual understanding and new ways of working; and the business precedent is the ‘task force’, though that usually has a wider management remit.

The terms of reference for a new IT-Business relationship appear simple and straightforward on first examination:

  • Start with a single, critical interaction — projects work well for this. A defined team of focused business and IT team resources who can be given a protected space to try new things, learn fast, fail fast, in an accelerator-type environment for a time-boxed project.
  • Digital by default — making sure that everyone on the team is aware of / familiar with all the technologies being proposed and developed (at least at high level); and working digital, i.e. using co-development, sharing, presence, chat and other internal tools that are common in innovation teams.
  • Sit outside the standard IT management / governance structure, at least for the duration of the project (although individual members will still belong to their respective HR structures, so fully accountable); this should also extend ideally to the tech environment, i.e. develop in a DMZ or sandbox if required, before figuring out how to make that work on the network. Generally the team should be empowered to get stuff done and ask for forgiveness, not permission.
  • Use problem-solving techniques borrowed from outside the conventional IT domain to work out exactly which issues need resolution, which stakeholders should be involved, what opportunities / problems the solution needs to address, who the customers are, etc., rather than take a traditional tech spec approach, which will be out of date by the time it’s built and will be managed through compliance and exception, not value.
  • Take pride in innovation, not for its own sake, but because the success of a next practice team can help to propel the whole business forward by example. Innovation takes many shapes, so we would need to advise the team here on what the best — and most relevant — techniques should be applied to encourage and measure innovation in the context of this project.
  • Finally help the team to execute through an agile approach, which does not mean ‘scrum’ necessarily (business people will struggle with software development and vice-versa, which may be part of the issue here), but rather a culture of delivering value early, often, and iteratively with senior stakeholders fully involved as part of the process, rather than sitting on the sidelines.

Operating first in “startup mode” to define a new relationship that crosses the IT-Business bridge, we now move into scale up mode, where we begin embedding service recipes into a business-wide, shared platform — but that is a blog post for another day 🙂

Ready to build a new bridge, and help your organisation move forward towards being an adaptive org? Please get in touch!