A path-based approach to corporate IT
CIOs the world over struggle to keep up with ever changing business requirements. At the same time, many companies feel short-changed by their IT departments, which end-users often perceive as being inflexible and slow to respond to changes in business needs. This lack of flexibility can usually be traced back to TItanic-like enterprise systems which straitjacket businesses into certain ways of doing things. In an article entitled Radically Simple IT published in the March 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review , David Upton and Bradley Staats propose a “novel approach” to the design and development of enterprise systems. They call the approach path-based because it provides a path for systems to be developed over time, incorporating changing (or missed) requirements along the way.
The path-based approach is based on the following tenets:
- Meld IT and business strategies together: The authors reckon that IT-business alignment, as it is usually presented, is hard to achieve because of a lack of mutual understanding between the two sides (this is something I’ve alluded to in an earlier post on project communication). Most discussions between IT and business tend to focus on individual projects rather than the big picture. The latter, however, is integral to a path based approach. To ensure that both sides understand each other, the authors suggest that IT staff be encouraged to understand the business and vice versa. This recommendation is far from new – see this article from 2005, for example.
- Keep things as simple as possible: The article recommends that CIOs should strive for simplicity in their IT environments, thereby ensuring that systems remain flexible (i.e. open to change). Some ways to achieve this include:
- Adhering to a minimal set of standards, so that the company has a standard operating environment at the client and server level. Additionally, standards should be recommended for specific applications.
- Evaluating whether new functionality requested by the business can be provided by existing software.
- Looking for simple solutions before buying or building complicated ones.
- Developing a modular enterprise architecture . This is essentially the notion of loose coupling – where individual systems are built in such a way as to minimise effects and dependencies on other systems.
- Empower end-users: All project and IT managers know that the biggest resistance to new systems often comes from end-users who, quite naturally, are reluctant to change their ways of working. Without end-user buy in, any new system is doomed to fail. The authors recommend reducing such organisational resistance to new applications by rolling out changes gradually. They also recommend soliciting user feedback on a continuous basis. The feedback should be acted on (and be seen to be acted on) in a timely manner so that users know their input is taken seriously.
The above principles are hardly new or radical, and few CIOs would question them. The path based approach really amounts to a consistent application of these in a (often difficult and ever changing) business environment. The authors illustrate the approach through a case study based on the experiences of Shinsei Bank. The case study is helpful because it provides concrete examples of application of the principles discussed. For more on the Shinsei story, read this transcript of an interview with Jay Dwivedi, the CIO responsible for implementing a path-based approach at that bank.
The article is well written and makes a good case for implementing such an approach in just about any corporate IT environment. However, many CIOs – particularly those stuck in organisations that don’t appreciate the strategic value of IT – will find it hard to put these principles into practice. But try they must, else their departments will continue to be viewed as cash sinks rather than strategic assets.