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“World Class IT” Or “Good Enough?”

Ever see a mission statement? Your own or other organization’s? Most reflect the same sentiments – “world class” in everything we do… unmatched service… excellence. Setting lofty goals is admirable – hyperbole or not – but it’s always important to examine the outcomes and goals you have for each initiative. Businesses today, from small to large are all stretched thin – and losing touch with what really impacts reaching your business goals can be detrimental to your company’s success, if not deadly.

So we make choices every day: what is critical to success and what can we live with as “good enough?” But be careful when deciding which is which, because it is not always clear cut. It is easy to know what is “core” to your business – but do you know all of the other areas that are critical to deliver excellence in your core business?

Often inefficiencies with technology and infrastructure are where organizations settle for “good enough?” What we lose sight of are the efficiencies in time and money that the right technology solutions can have across the organization. “Good enough” just isn’t to deliver your products, services, and support with excellence. Your competitors can achieve better than you – in everything you do – simply by having an infrastructure that strives to be world class, enabling them to be faster, better, and cheaper.

World-class does not have to be expensive, but it does require thought. More specifically it requires strategies and people committed to rightsizing the IT function and making sure it is aligned with your business goals. Understanding that the organization may be small, or may not have information as a core part of its offering may cause them to consider outsourcing to gain the advantage of a world class IT function without the cost of a wholly owned unit. The best news is that the cost savings and gains in efficiencies turn your IT from a cost center to a partner in your business.

Researching and considering what makes a “World Class IT” function has led me to believe that it embodies the following characteristics:

  • It creates and maintains a platform that is stable and robust that business units can reliably employ through all business cycles and functions.
  • It has people that are skilled in their roles, committed to the organization’s success, and is a stable team with low turnover.
  • It provides the needed systems and tools to enable all business units to understand processes, and measure and manage them for improvement.
  • It spends just the right amount, with measures in place to understand costs. In other words, it has a budget in alignment with the rest of the organization – and has demonstrable value.
  • It takes its knowledge of the organization through the lens of data movement and helps define and improve business process for the betterment of the whole organization.

I came across a book recently that has been helpful many CIOs, and is aptly titled for our discussion – World Class IT by Peter High. In it he develops five principles for IT which are different than I had thought of them. His five principles are:
People form the foundation of an organization. Without the right people doing the right jobs at the right time, it is difficult to achieve excellent performance.
Infrastructure distinguishes between a reactive organization and a proactive one. If software, hardware, networks, and so on are not consistently performing their tasks, the IT organization will become lodged in reactive mode. If the infrastructure works reliably, then a greater percentage of the organization can think about the future.

Project and Portfolio Management is the engine through which new capabilities can emerge within the company. It is important to ensure that the portfolio collectively supports the goals of the business and that projects are delivered on time and on budget.

IT and Business Partnerships are vital. It is the IT executive’s role to ensure that different groups within IT function as a team, communicating efficiently and effectively. It is equally important that IT develop partnering relationships with executive management, lines of business and key business functions to ensure ownership of and success for IT initiatives.

External Partnerships are increasingly important as outsourcing becomes more common. By contributing to the discussion about business strategy, IT is in a strong position to determine which aspects of IT are best handled by external partners. Further, IT must be adept at managing those relationships to be sure the company gains the expected value from its outsourcing activity.

There are some overlaps with my list, but the differences point to areas that we need to make certain are not taken for granted. For example, disaster recovery does not “technically” add business value – but neither does insurance. Money to protect your business may someday be the best money you’ve ever spent. No one wants to need insurance – but you cannot accept being without it.

I especially appreciated the way High promotes Project and Portfolio Management, as it leads me to think back to the fact that the truly outstanding IT functions I have had the privilege to work with not only did that well for IT-centric projects, they actually led the rest of the organization in this discipline for non-IT projects.

Regardless of how you think of “World Class IT” – it is clear that often good enough just isn’t, and that your IT needs to be:

  • Encompassing of all functions in the department, and outside of it.
  • Measurable and actionable
  • Customized to your organization. World class is not the same for everyone as each organization has different goals and processes that support these goals.
  • Stable and reliable – never a barrier and always an enabler to great work.
  • Contributing to the growth of the business in a true partnership.

And that brings me to a concluding thought – metrics are important. They should be aligned to the overall business goals, and organized according to whatever system you choose to use when discussing and designing your IT function (e.g. High’s World Class IT or some other system).

And to that end, metrics should also be:

  • Assigned to a person responsible for its improvement
  • Have targets
  • Have the right amount of metrics – too many causes loss of focus
  • Have specific projects and initiatives created and assigned to reach and exceed the metric’s goals.