April 28, 2014

If you've ever been to London, you'll recognize the phrase "Mind the Gap" as the ubiquitous warning slogan embedded in the tile of most London underground stations. The phrase is a warning to watch one's step when stepping from the platform to the train door or vice versa.

It's an apt metaphor for a surprising new development in many insurance companies. With the recent increases in IT budgets and their capacity to take on some long-dormant initiatives, the gap has shifted from IT's ability to do something to the business's ability to participate and absorb new initiatives.

Frank Petersmark
Frank Petersmark, X by 2

This is a brave new world indeed.

In the old days, and by that I mean just a few years ago, the reverse was almost always true, and had been so for many, many years. That long-standing paradigm went something like this: The business needed many things done of equal strategic impact and import (even if that were not true), and IT had neither the capacity nor the know-how to complete them all to the business's satisfaction.

Nevertheless, most IT shops would do their level best to try to satisfy all of the business's requests, correctly calculating that it was in their best survival instincts to do so, and the resulting deliverables have essentially set the stage for all of the core modernization, business process, and data centric efforts that are so prevalent today. All of that old stuff, built or bought in a hurry and implemented with a lowest-common-denominator approach, has now outlived its usefulness.

[Previously from Petersmark: Pioneer's vs. Settlers: Which Exhibition to Join?]

The good news about the last several years of lean IT budgets and even leaner project portfolios is that it taught most IT shops some very important lessons.

First, IT learned that it was not okay to have several number-one priorities from their business colleagues at the same time. Rather, it learned the better approach of optimizing IT and business resources for the organization by having forthright dialogues with their business partners about what was and was not possible, and how properly prioritizing work would lead to overall better results for all concerned. As Martha Stewart is fond of saying: "It's a good thing."

The second lesson IT learned was that it was no longer possible, if it ever was, to create business requirements in a vacuum and have any possible hope of building or buying the optimal solution. Whether the requirements were created by IT and signed off by the business, or the requirements were created by the business and given to IT, it still turns out that it's no way to run a railroad.

If IT created the requirements they inevitably misunderstood what the business really needed and over-complicated the solution, and if business created the requirements they inevitably under-communicated what they were really trying to accomplish. Rather, it took the last few years of reduced IT capacity and budget to realize that most IT initiatives work best when there is shared responsibility and accountability between IT and the business. And while this is certainly not rocket science, it was a cultural and collaborative shift for many organizations.

These two lessons, along with the introduction of modern development methodologies and improved project management governance, started to turn the bottleneck tables until today many IT shops find themselves pumping the brakes on initiatives due to a lack of business resources at a micro level, and an inability on the part of the organization to absorb constant change at a macro level. So what recalibrations need to be made by both IT and the business to be successful in this new bottleneck paradigm?

Breaking the New Bottleneck

First and foremost, IT shops need to demonstrate some empathy and understanding toward their business colleagues, and not forget that for most of their collective memories, the roles were reversed. Just as it was never reasonable to expect IT to "do more with less" and "work smarter," it's also just as unreasonable to expect the business to dedicate all of their best people – in other words the people who run the business – to all of the critical business technology initiatives.

Second, it is incumbent on both IT and their business colleagues to mine the organization for the kinds of business domain knowledge needed to begin to break this bottleneck. It more than likely exists, but had just never been tapped before.

And finally, this new bottleneck presents an opportunity for many IT shops, if they haven't already done so, to redefine themselves by demonstrating their ability to walk a mile in their colleagues' shoes. In so doing, they build the kinds of collaborative skills necessary to deal with this business bottleneck for as long as it might last.

For the moment, IT shops can quietly enjoy this new bottleneck paradigm, while all the while remembering that the "Mind the Gap" warning used to apply to them, and very likely will again at some point in the future.

About the author: Frank Petersmark is the CIO Advocate at X by 2, a technology consulting company in Farmington Hills, Mich., specializing in software and data architecture and transformation projects for the insurance industry. As CIO Advocate, he travels the country meeting CIOs and other senior IT and business executives at insurers, learning about their goals and frustrations, sharing lessons learned, and offering strategic counsel. Formerly Chief Information Officer and Vice President of information technology at Amerisure Mutual Insurance Company, Frank has more 30 years' experience as an information technology professional and executive.