Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Business, You and Me; Get It Together!

If you've read some of the previous posts you may have realised that I currently work in the IT area of a bank: the chief architect role at Kiwibank in fact (as those who attended the keynote at the recent Microsoft NZ Tech Briefings, or have read our Microsoft case study will know). Prior to Kiwibank I worked for a year at ENZA, then before that a few years at Deloitte Consulting, and prior to that I undertook a physics PhD from Victoria University in association with Industrial Research Ltd, a Crown Research Institute.

Each of these organisations has taught me a little bit more about how people work together and what makes us succeed in delivering. It has also highlighted the precarious and unappreciated position that the shared service line holds, especially the IT shared service line.

ENZA was an organisation that went during the year that I was there, from an external market focussed apple and pear exporter with producer board status and mandated export control, to a grower focussed commercial entity that retreated from the political environment of Wellington to the safety and security of the grower stronghold Hastings. As a company it had two strategic directions ahead of it, either strive to become a global category specialist based perhaps in one of the major trading hubs, or become a grower focussed organisation that showed it's value at the farm gate. Retreating was certainly the less risky option and it was that path that lead to the rationalisation with Turners and Growers in a 2003 merger.

At ENZA the (naive) question faced in 2000 was what part of the company represented the future of the business: the export facing arm or the grower facing arm. IT at this time was treated as a cost centre run under the finance group. And seeing as the organisation ran SAP it was certainly some cost.

In the middle of 2000 while working at ENZA I happened to come across a chap at Turners and Growers who explained that they were running a home grown software suite that was at the end of the tether. Myself and two others actually went and visited them in Auckland and it was apparent that they had problems. The obvious thought to the three of us was imagine combining the two organisations and taking advantage of the SAP implementation at ENZA. It would be a great asset right?

Well, that is indeed what happened. Someone out there saw the synergy: did Tony Gibbs think about this I wonder? Whoever it was they certainly knew a thing or two about SAP and IT in general. I note that there's now a customer success story about SAP and Turners and Growers on the SAP web site.

Prior to that experience I was at Deloitte Consulting which presented me with opportunities to work in companies and organisations across government, the health sector, and telecommunications. Now for all the minor gripes that many of us had there at the time - long hours etc etc - one thing definitely stands out: the value of good people. I did work with some very good people and while often thrown in at the deep end we did ok. A small group went on to do especially well, witness Trademe and AMR. Being a consulting group we didn't have much of an IT function. Information Technology was a core attribute of our service line and overlaid across the group was a matrix model representing sector and service advocacy. I think it worked well.

In comparison many of the companies we worked for had well defined structures with strong vertical focus on product delivery. You'd walk into these organisations and there were barriers everywhere. Internal development was hardly ever undertaken. Individual business units would occasionally issue RFIs, RFPs or succumb to the salesmanship of a clever vendor. Work would always proceed on the basis of a long chain approach that ensured the people that understood what was possible never had a chance to really influence the development of new ideas in the organisation. Certainly not outside of the immediate business unit.

In these environments you'd always here the catch phrase: "it's up to the business to decide", or often from the PMs/BAs, "we have to listen to the business", or the classic "the business wants...".

The depressing thing is that this is more often voiced by the staff of the IT department than the business units themselves. If people in an IT department don't think they're value contributing then they deserve to be treated as a cost centre and outsourced to the likes of EDS or IBM.

It's a personal mission of mine that my application delivery group does not come out with the same nonsense. It's the innovation that comes from those that know what's possible combined with the people that can advocate for a customer, and those that know the financial constraints and tools, and those that can market the products that creates value contribution in a company. Any organisation that forgets the value of the combined talent of all its resources deserves to lose market value.

Oh, and Industrial Research? A depressing environment of disillusioned scientists with ideas but no knowledge of how to commercialise them...

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