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Talking tough at the top

Talking tough at the top

Pivotal enterprise architecture decisions need to be made at the top if IT investment is to realise its best potential.

Pat Ryan makes no bones about it. “I’m brutally honest. When I meet with a CIO, CEO or the like, I tell them what’s what. They don’t always like it.”

The straight-talking enterprise architect, one of the senior team at Resultex’s architecture practice, believes most organisations can’t effectively evaluate their own IT investment. What’s needed, he says, is a clear, honest — and therefore objective — viewpoint.

“Traditionally IT has just gone where the wind blew. It evolves, and people go where the vendors take them, often with very little thought about the return on investment. So they spend the money, but they don’t really know why they’re spending the money and they don’t really know how to get sustained value out of it.”

Enterprise architecture (EA) is the answer he says. Properly applied, it can ensure that an organisation’s IT decisions are made in alignment with its overall business strategy. EA can create a better and long-term return on investment than short-term IT ‘fix-ups’.

“Enterprise architecture is about controlling the sourcing of IT,” Ryan says.

Therefore strategic questions need to be asked; What is the business trying to do? What’s driving it financially? How does it make sensible investments in IT to get the maximum benefit? he says

These questions are pivotal to Resultex. Based in Wellington, the company was started in the mid-‘90s by Bob D’Ath and Ross Barr. They were working together in a large government agency when the opportunity arose for them to go into business for themselves. Resultex (Results with Excellence) was born.

The move turned out to be a good one and a few years later the original “loose group of contractors”, as D’Ath calls them, had grown in staff numbers and services offered to a respected business and IT consulting services company.

Subsequent growth has also been steady, with only senior staff — many at CIO, CEO or CFO-level experience — recruited. Bob D’Ath is pleased with progress. “We’ve grown from basically nothing into a pretty serious business, employing people with ‘horsepower’.”

One key aspect of that serious business, D’Ath, Ryan and Barr agree, is that too many organisations suffer a disconnect between their IT and their business strategies.

“This has probably been the biggest challenge that we have faced in developing the architecture practice: that mostly anything to do with IT is seen by businesses to be an IT problem,” Ryan says. “What they’re starting to realise is that a very large proportion of their capital investment is actually tied up in IT.”

Resultex has taken the best of the world’s analysis frameworks and methods — TOGAF, Zachman and Gartner among them — and has adapted them to create the Resultex Architecture Method (RAM), which is shaped in modules more appropriate to the size of most New Zealand businesses.

Ryan, whose background spans IT involvement in Applied Data Research, Computer Associates and Glazier Systems, says the RAM system is critical to gaining a good, current-state analysis of a business. He claims it overcomes a common problem, where traditional consulting firms often arrive with an assumed set of problems.

“So their approach is based on expectations of the pre-determined solution by the consultants and the business. They think they know what the answer is, but they haven’t worked out what the problem is.”

Many of the assumptions he says are wrong. “The thing they think is broken is [often] not.”

With a RAM current-state analysis, Resultex finds out from both the business owners and the IT owners what keeps them awake at night.

“We don’t interpret the findings or add to them, we just summarise them into common themes and the recipients are usually astounded. IT and senior management often have a 180-degree opposite view of their systems.”

The problem, says Ryan, is that the principals are just too close to their own business. “We have a far broader, objective view of systems than would normally be had.”

Businesses also tend to focus on their annoyances and frustrations, which colours their whole perception. “We try to put them in the context of what’s good and solid, and what’s not.”

The current-state analysis includes gathering what might add up to “a few hundred concerns” from company individuals, which are recorded and then themed.

“It’s the themes that are the biggest surprises for the business,” Ryan says. “All the things they thought generally were of real concern tend not to be — with a few notable exceptions – but what we find is this communication challenge where the business and IT have become disconnected. IT is trying really hard to do its job properly, the business is trying really hard to do its job properly, but they’re somehow not meeting in the middle.”

D’Ath agrees; IT and business often don’t talk the same language. “They have different expectations of each other. I think some of the results we’ve come up with, with some of our clients, have horrified them a bit. Horrified both the business and horrified IT!”

The fact is some IT investment decisions have been wrong, and, horrified or not, the organisation can’t ignore the factual evidence. It’s at this stage that Pat often has to do some hard talking to senior management, sometimes revealing their IT investment has been misdirected.

So what happens next? Ryan explains that Resultex then looks at the current-state analysis, uses the business strategy to determine what the future state should be, and basically does a gap analysis of what’s between.

It’s not always bad news and Resultex doesn’t aim to fix things that aren’t broken. “One of the hallmarks of our projects is that we don’t make people throw stuff away,” says Pat. “In fact we’re very conscious that some old systems that companies utilise, tend to have a very large part of the business invested in them.”

But Ryan says those systems may have got a bit “ragged round the edges”, even though they largely do what the business fundamentally wants. The problem is not necessarily in the core functions, but how people interface with them for reporting or whatever.

Resultex therefore goes to some effort to enable without having to rewrite, as opposed to vendors or others who, Ryan claims, propose the solution is to simply buy their product, rewriting the systems and “everything will be wonderful”.

“And of course it won’t be wonderful at all.”

Resultex’s EA solutions aim to preserve investment where it’s of quality, discover what’s really wrong and deal with those issues strategically.

But one of the biggest hurdles of EA is for CEOs, CFOs, COOs and CTOs to recognise that investment in IT is a core part of their organisations’ business strategies, rather than a stand-alone initiative or cost. The tough talking — and decision-making — needs to be at the top.

“Our biggest challenge when we go into a business is to convince them that we’re talking about something that’s of benefit to their business, as opposed to being of benefit to their IT people,” says Ryan. “So we really need to be talking to a GM — but not necessarily to a GM of IT or CFO or CIO — somebody who’s actually directing the strategy of the business, and then we can align that with what we offer and look to protect and develop their investment.

“We’re arguably one of the very few that actually deal with enterprise architecture at that level, where it becomes investment strategy for a business, as opposed to a technology agenda.”

Freelance writer-photographer Mike Bodnar has a background in radio and television. The former regional news presenter lives in Wellington.

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