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12:51 PM
Frank Petersmark, X by 2
Frank Petersmark, X by 2

Mind the Gap: The Surprising New IT Bottleneck

IT is able to provide more services than ever. But can that overwhelm the business side?

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.

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User Rank: Author
5/2/2014 | 1:09:33 PM
re: Mind the Gap: The Surprising New IT Bottleneck
Good comments all. I think the trend line reflects the continuing importance of having engaged business and IT people involved early on in business technology initiatives. That's not new, but what is a bit newer is the recognition that leveraging deep and broad business domain experience is a critical success factor for successful IT/business efforts. In the past that was mostly given lip service, but with the financial and competitive stakes so high now, it just makes sense to pull people together for this purpose. Now that that's been recognized it's become difficult for the business to find and free up these skill sets - these are usually the people that keep things running on a daily basis. So going forward it almost doesn't matter if they're from the business or IT, so long as they understand the inner workings of the organization. No matter what, you're all spot on - translating business domain knowledge into something IT can use is a new skill set for many business people, but those who figure it out will have a much better track record for successful IT initiatives. Thanks for the comments.
Nathan Golia
Nathan Golia,
User Rank: Author
4/30/2014 | 10:02:41 PM
re: Mind the Gap: The Surprising New IT Bottleneck
That is very true, Anshu. Whoever is the one responsible for establishing ROI must understand both the business needs and what IT is trying to do.
Anshu Biswas
Anshu Biswas,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 12:41:43 PM
re: Mind the Gap: The Surprising New IT Bottleneck
The Business Analyst should be co-owned group between IT and Business. Unless we do that, IT and Business will continue to work in isolation and not take care of the 'gap'. Also, the industry need to define BAs as domain expert and Understands IT, NOT document generation engine.
User Rank: Author
4/28/2014 | 8:54:59 PM
re: Mind the Gap: The Surprising New IT Bottleneck
Sounds like this could definitely be a driver behind that trend. A lot of the positions that you're describing seem to be coming from the most innovative organizations too that are trying to get business people more in tune with the IT and innovation themes that the organization is interested in.
User Rank: Author
4/28/2014 | 8:04:08 PM
re: Mind the Gap: The Surprising New IT Bottleneck
Frank, this is a really interesting way of thinking about the "state of IT" and the relationship between IT and the business.Do you think the "gap" also is one of the factors in the emergence of the business analyst role, that person who is supposed to be the bridge/liaison between IT/project management and the end-users? It also seems from what you are saying that, just as IT had to learn new skills around making the business case (justification) for a project, now the business side almost has to relearn how to plan and present and justify projects.
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