The focus of the "Oracle Essentials: Oracle Database 11g" book is describing technical concepts and capabilities essential to understanding the Oracle database. At the time the book was initially written, the economic conditions were good and understanding how to advance an Oracle-based project centered on technical criteria. Based on the popularity of the book, we believe it does a pretty good job of explaining those essentials. But in this economy of 2009, IT organizations struggle to get projects moving forward and it is usually not for technical reasons.
Much has been written over the past several years about a growing disconnect between senior business management and IT in many organizations and companies. IT organization budgets grew when the economy was growing, so finding funding for new projects was sometimes difficult but always possible by adjusting priorities. Today, without business justification, such new projects are all but impossible.
While we are not sure we will include this topic in a future edition of Oracle Essentials (beyond what we already cover in the Chapter on data warehousing and business intelligence) it is certainly worth discussing here. I'd also like some feedback to this blog if you would see such a standalone Chapter on finding business benefit, measuring costs, and determining return on investment to be a valuable addition to a future edition.
Let's begin by stating that lines of business and IT organizations have radically different views on what is "essential" to a well-conceived project. Probably of no surprise to this audience, the IT focus is on infrastructure and getting it right so that projects can be maintained and adjust to evolving business needs. The lines of business have more immediate concerns - those being access to the right information to make critical business decisions when they need it. Speed of deployment for any proposed solution is critical. Less than robust infrastructure solutions are ok to the business side provided they don't get in the way of getting answers needed at critical moments.
It is no surprise that in many companies, shadow IT organizations spring up in the lines of business where IT projects don't meet what are perceived as reasonable time-frames or miss the mark upon delivery. These shadow organizations tactically build solutions quickly to deliver answers far faster than IT would, but often later suffer support issues and revert to IT management if they become too painful. So, what is different in organizations where IT is seen as an aid rather than an impediment?
In such organizations, IT is tightly connected to the lines of business. The lines of business help set the priorities regarding the scope and order in which projects get done. IT takes an incremental build approach delivering return on investment throughout this process.
Today, such an approach is mandatory in most companies to advance the project. When IT looks at return on investment, the focus of a project is often one-sided - on total cost of ownership and IT-centric. Primary benefits mentioned are often technical and not all that inspiring.
The lines of business have a broader context for benefits. They look at growing business return and / or reducing cost within the business and the impact can be in the millions of dollars. Only the lines of business can articulate meaningful metrics around such return that will be believed. Increasingly, they are the source of funding for large scale IT projects as enablers of major business initiatives.
If you are within IT, how do you know where you stand in terms of importance and likelihood of getting interesting projects funded within your company? Here are some critical questions to ask:
- How strong are your contacts in the lines of business? Do they ignore IT advice?
- At what level does your CIO report in the organization compared to 5 years ago?
- Does the CEO ever go directly to IT for advice or to initiate strategic programs?
- Do your project initiatives match corporate business initiatives?
- Does your company promote CIOs from outside of IT to "fix" perceived problems
- Is the only focus in IT on saving money (and there is no discussion of value)?
- When you propose a project, where does your business sponsorship come from?
If you are really worried after reading that set of questions, what can you do to fix the situation? First of all, network with people that you do know from past projects that live outside of IT. Meet them off-site after work if needed to find out what they really think of past projects and most importantly, what data they need in their daily job that they still can't get easily. Building such a network is critical and though some of your IT management may not appreciate it at first (this can be groundbreaking in some companies), look for opportunities to leverage those relationships when future projects are identified or to help drive an initiative from outside of your organization.
Another effort you might partake is to look for project opportunities by listening to CEO and CFO comments. Not invited to such meetings you say? Public companies often identify missing information that is critical to their success in quarterly earnings calls. Sadly, many IT folks are often not paying attention to real opportunities to impact the business as their company limps along by extracting data into spreadsheets and bases judgments on widely different views of what data really represents.
Finally, when you talk to the lines of business, talk in their terms. The technology is fun for you to talk about but is an unnecessary detail to business people that will result in you losing their attention. Any technology should be explained using business terms as to why it is important to them. Remember that they want to hear about the business value you can provide and how quickly, not how you might build such a solution. Save the technical architecture piece for consideration after they buy-in and you need to cost out the solution - and then focus the discussion on comparing the costs to the benefits they'll receive and a resulting positive return on investment.