Having recently met up with friends who I hadn’t seen for a long time, the inevitable question in the evening came up – “How’s work going? What are you up to at the moment? What exactly is it that you do?” They are questions that I always find difficult to answer, so despite knowing these friends for over 10 years, clearly I have never explained what I do in terms that they can really understand...
“So in simple terms, I manage a software development team for a Business and IT Consultancy – we develop bespoke software for our clients based on their business problems”… blank looks…”so you mean software programs …. like Microsoft Office”… “err ... no… not really, they are usually particular business problems unique to them and we write software that fits their business processes, enabling them to become more efficient at what they do, or improve their customer service and so on”… “So why would they need you to write something – can they not just buy something that does what they need?”… “Well sometimes yes, but sometimes there is nothing that can do what they need…and sometimes even if there is something that fits the bill it doesn’t integrate well with their other systems.”… “So how do your clients know what they need?”… “Well, we help them… we understand what they are trying to achieve as a business, understand their issues, understand the systems they have in place, areas where the systems do not meet what they need to do and advise”…“oh”... [glazed over expression]... “So have you any holidays booked yet for this year?”
The conversation planted a seed – bespoke development is such a conceptual thing to grasp – how do we really explain what we do and more importantly how do we help our clients (and prospective clients) understand what they have, what they need and then help them to get there?
Looking at the problem broadly, the first question that springs to mind is why do people need business systems? The (very simplistic) answer that I concluded was ‘to share, store and manipulate information'. Every business system that I can think of, bespoke or otherwise, is purely a mechanism for pushing data from A to B via C, for showing information, for sharing information, for using raw data to calculate information or for auditing information. Portals, websites, ERP systems, planning systems, data warehouses, transactional systems – they are all 'Information Systems' – their purpose being to share information with the relevant people who need it, at the points they need it to cause action, which allow decisions to be made and for the business to function as it needs to.
Thinking back to the clients that I have worked with over the years, the main problem that is faced by them is managing their information needs. It is very rare to come across an organisation that has no systems in place, the majority of organisations have many systems in place; all performing a particular function, with duplicated data which doesn’t always stay in sync, which invariably do not integrate together and which causes reporting inconsistencies, manual effort and regulatory nightmares. I have come across many organisations which are implementing/have implemented a system in isolation to the rest of their business systems because of pressure from the executive board to ‘get something in’; or where an interim solution has been implemented as ‘we didn’t have enough time to do the proper solution’ and 5 years later the ‘interim’ solution is still in place; or where people in the core of the business have implemented a solution because ‘IT were never getting round to doing anything about it.’ What does this all lead to? A massive mish-mash of systems that don’t speak to one another, that can provide more problems than existed before they were implemented, lots of wasted money, time, blood, sweat and tears! Sound familiar? So where does it all go wrong? Organisations have to respond to the market they are operating in, they have to be agile, and they have to be able to act on regulatory changes to survive. External influences make organisations reactive – and inevitably (it seems) with reactivity comes disparity of information. Whilst it would be impossible to remove the reactive nature of organisations trying to survive in a difficult economic environment, and whilst I am not a purist and favour a more pragmatic approach; there is a need to take a more strategic view to ensure that the information needs of the organisation can be fulfilled.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a silver bullet to fix the problem (sorry to disappoint you!); however going through a process of understanding the information needs of the business, having a vision of the systems architecture that has to be in place to support those needs, and ultimately delivering that architecture will provide an overall structure that should help an organisation ensure that they can react, whilst maintaining the integrity of their information. The following roadmap is one that we regularly follow when helping our clients get from their current state and derive a vision of where they need to get to.
Step 1: Understand what the business is trying to achieve
The first step is to really understand the business strategy and key drivers for the organisation. It is an essential starting point to ensure that an organisation has a clear idea of what the financial targets it is aiming to achieve are and what customer centred initiatives are required to meet those aims. Once those are understood, it is possible to define/understand the internal processes and people related issues to correctly align them within the overall strategy. As a business we use several tools to help us to do this including the Discipline Driver model of Treacey and Wiersema (1) which defines the core driver for the business – a product leader, a customer intimate organisation or an operationally efficient organisation; the Hedgehog concept derived by Collins(2) which defines the core values and purpose of the organisation; and the Balanced Score Card (3) and associated Strategy Map (4) defined by Kaplan and Norton which allows an organisation to understand the financial, customer, internal and learning growth perspectives for the organisation.
This stage of the process is required to establish the context for the Information System needs, and provides the understanding for why certain information is required and ultimately the impact on the aims of the business if those needs are not adequately fulfilled.
Step 2: Understand what the information needs of the business are
Once a clear definition of what the business is trying to achieve is outlined, the next steps are to ensure that the information needs of the business are understood.
This is carried out by identifying and understanding the main functional areas of the business and the major business processes that are required for the business to operate. Through understanding the broad processes and functions within an organisation, it helps to identify key stakeholders who have a vested interest in the information and enables further detailed discussions as to what the information is used for.
Step 3: Assess the status quo
To know where you want to get to, it is always a good starting point to understand where you are now. An important part of the process is to understand what is currently in place both from a systems perspective and a data perspective. It is crucial to gain an understanding of the current touch points between the different systems and between the data; whether those points are automated or manual; the key functions that are performed within the systems; and how the data is used. The aim of this part of the process is to produce a systems map and a data map which shows the current picture, highlighting data/information gaps, duplication, inefficiencies and potential areas for inaccuracies.
Step 4: Review and consolidate
This is the intellectual part of the process; taking the current picture, understanding the overlaps, the gaps and the current and future information needs of the business – using this information as a basis it is then possible to identify areas to consolidate, change and improve. This involves identifying areas where:
- Data is duplicated – to understand what can be done to ensure that the data no longer needs to be duplicated.
- Data is missing – to understand where within the process that data needs to be collated to ensure it is available for use by the relevant people.
- Data is inconsistent – to understand where data is being manipulated and changed in more than one place.
- Systems are not performing – to understand whether the systems need replacing or whether the core functions they are performing would be better achieved using another system or process.
- Manual processes are in place – to understand the ‘spreadsheet’ based systems and paper based processes in place to identify if they would be better achieved through automation.
- Location of integration points with third parties – to understand what data moves inside and outside of the organisation.
The purpose of the step is to categorise the systems with regards to their main functions; identifying systems that should be kept within the overall architecture, the systems which need to be removed or replaced, the systems which need to be changed and the areas where the different systems should integrate.
Step 5: Define an enterprise architecture
The final step is bringing all that information together to define an overall conceptual enterprise architecture which identifies the core systems categorised by function; the mechanisms by which users will access the data in the systems, for example through portals, productivity suites, web based applications and business to business interfaces; workflows to map the business processes, data orchestration to maintain data integrity and business intelligence suites to provide management information and operational reporting. The ultimate aim is to provide a conceptual future vision for an information systems structure to support the requirements of the organisation.
So, following this process you will have an idea of the information systems architecture you need in place to support your organisation – job done? Not really – now comes the arguably harder task of delivering that vision…