Information systems have arguably been the most effective engine for business innovation over the past 60 years. The resulting increases in productivity and value have impacted almost every area of life.
What the Business Needs
But business needs are continually in flux due to new business imperatives, new strategies, competitive pressures, new products, mergers and acquisitions, changing markets, escalating customer expectations, changing delivery channels, regulatory and accounting changes, process improvement initiatives, and demands to reduce time to market. Change is the norm in business today.
In my experience, businesses mainly need two things from their IT groups: (1) timely solutions that boost business innovation, when and as they’re needed; and (2) the ability to quickly adapt those solutions as business needs change. IT must step up to these challenges with both flexibility and robustness.
What IT Delivers
In IT, as in most areas of life, it’s easier to promise than to deliver. This occurs in schedule and cost when IT delivers late or over budget. But more troubling is when IT delivers the wrong functionality—when systems either don’t meet the business need, are unusable within the business context, or simply don’t work. (I have a bit too much personal experience with systems of this kind.)
These classes of failure correspond to the three classical objectives: faster, cheaper, better—late is not fast enough; over budget is not cheap enough; and solutions that don’t work are not good enough. While it’s considered impossible to deliver all three simultaneously, some IT groups have shown conclusively that it’s possible to fail at all three simultaneously.
Though there are notable exceptions, most IT failures occur quietly, sometimes without management awareness. The entire lifecycles of the resulting systems may be characterized by unnecessarily high costs and ongoing hurdles to business innovation.
IT failures have been measured often over the decades since computing systems emerged as viable business tools. Survey after survey reveals that between 50 and 80 percent of information systems projects fail to meet their original objectives. And these results have remained remarkably consistent over several decades, despite radical improvements in management processes, development methodologies, programming languages, underlying technologies, and testing disciplines. (I’ll address this further in a future article.)
And even the most successfully deployed IT system can be expensive and labor-intensive to adapt to emerging business needs, especially when new needs are at odds with the business assumptions that were baked into earlier systems.
So, there are two significant problems in IT projects: (1) failure to deliver needed systems, as and when they’re needed, and (2) lack of adaptability in deployed systems.
Interestingly, IT struggles to deliver exactly the same two things the business needs most.
A Sometimes Tense Coexistence
This is more than a mere failure to meet business expectations. Yes, the baseline costs of such failures can be high, but most often the real cost to the business is in missed opportunities.
For most businesses, on most days, then, long-term success depends on agility. IT must find new ways to partner with the business to deliver true business agility.
(Part 2 of this article series is here.)
Photo: Notre Dame bell tower, internal detail, Paris, France, © 2017 Steve Laufmann. All rights reserved.