Leveraging business capabilities for strategic planning

Changing how IT goes to market with a common language for business improvement.

innovation ideas blueprint planning lightbulb
Thinkstock

[This article was co-written by Leila Chouai]

If you’re not thinking like a software company, you’re already behind.

Software companies focus on codifying and then scaling everything they do. To do that, business subject-matter expertise and technical expertise must become one in the same, converging once siloed disciplines.

In a recent interview with Metis Strategy, Cathy Bessant, Bank of America’s Chief Operations & Technology Officer, explained that convergence must apply to all companies, saying, “Technology has completely changed the notion of business integration. You cannot say the business is technology or technology enables the business—they are one and the same.”

Your company will not be able to compete at scale and speed if delivery teams have not gone beyond typical IT-business hand offs to true convergence. This convergence extends beyond obvious points of technology dependence, such as an eCommerce website or managing internal productivity tools; it is happening everywhere.

Still, many companies struggle with where to start on this transformation. Business function leaders often communicate high-level goals that are difficult for technology leaders to translate into concrete actions, and technology leaders often approach a problem by addressing the technology first, and the business outcome second. They end up six months into a “digital transformation” effort with a disparate collection of projects, but no cohesive sense of prioritization or interdependence to create a more tech-driven future.

The solution to bridge this gap between strategy and execution is for IT leaders to be better collaborators and communicators, and to understand the business and customer needs as well as their business partners do. But that is easier said than done.

Start by rooting your IT plans in a well-defined business capabilities map, and then transform the way that IT goes to market by driving cross-functional operating model convergence in the long term.

Defining business capabilities

Business capabilities are an integrated set of processes, technologies, and deep expertise that are manifested as a functional capacity to capture or deliver value to the organization. They outline “what” a business does, as opposed to “how” a business does it. They are the definition of your organizational skills, best represented in a landscape map that allows you to evaluate the full spectrum of capabilities against each other.

Business capability maps are not just about technology; these tools are designed to improve an organization's holistic ability to improve a business outcome, and in many cases, it is not the technology that is the constraint, but rather a process, skill, or policy issue.

Consider the process for onboarding a new employee. Strong onboarding capabilities make the experience seamless for the new hire. From the second an employee steps into the office, they might:

  • Be welcomed at his/her desk by a hiring manager, who provides a building access card and computer
  • Be given orientation training videos on the company’s mission, security protocols, etc.
  • Be added to email distribution lists, Slack channels, file access on shared drives, and to recurring meetings related to his/her role
  • Be coached through benefits enrollment for 401(k), health-savings accounts, and vacation accrual

There are various people, process and technology components behind each of the steps in the employee’s journey. However, the employee does not—and should not—feel the transition between, in this case, HR, facilities, and IT.

If the desired outcome for this capability is to provide a seamless employee experience where the employee is productive in less than three days, the different functional areas should integrate their strategic plans to meet that objective. This is often challenging in an organization that thinks and acts in functional silos, but a capability-driven approach will bridge that gap.

4-step approach to capability-driven IT strategy

1. Define the business capabilities

Many organizations have never formally documented their business architecture and therefore struggle to understand business priorities. To bridge that gap, IT will generally dispatch enterprise architects or business relationship managers to form bonds with functional leaders, understand their current processes, and identify the pain points. As a result, they map the business capabilities. This exercise elevates technology leaders and their business partners to common ground, on which both can add value to the conversation: one around business process improvement, and the other around technology enablement.

We generally suggest no more than four levels of cascading capabilities, with the fourth level most resembling the associated process. Keep in mind that business capability maps are not organizational charts. By definition, they are anchored by the business outcome, with many functional areas converging to realize that outcome.

2.  Segment and prioritize the capabilities

Once you define your capabilities, prioritize them to help provide strategic direction to the organization. Not all capabilities are of equal importance to your ability to compete, so you need to ensure you are not boiling the ocean. While there is more nuance in practice, for simplicity, capabilities fall on a scale of achieving competitive parity through sustaining competitive advantage, and it is important to evaluate which are the most important to your business’ success. This segmentation will not change tremendously year by year, unless there are major shifts in the competitive forces at play.

  • Competitive advantage: Capabilities that—currently, or in the future—are critical to creating or sustaining your market position in a fundamentally unique way. Customers will hire you because of these capabilities, your employees will love you for them, and your investors will celebrate the cost effectiveness that they bring. For example, you may be able to segment customers and tailor offerings in a way that economizes your marketing spend far better than a competitor. Or, if your competitor competes on price, you may compete on amazing customer service. Thus, you might prioritize your capability on managing customer cases. To be clear, further segmentation is needed within the “Competitive Advantage” bucket; remember: not everything is created equal.
  • Parity: Capabilities that maintain customer expectations and operational needs. You don’t lose (but also probably don’t gain) fans because of these capabilities. For example, your “process payroll” capability probably needs to stay at current levels, but it does not need to be the target of heavy investment and prioritization. This doesn’t mean you don’t invest in these areas. For example, Uber uses Stripe to instantly pay drivers, giving them cash in hand each day, but Lyft also offers this capability. Uber needs to continue to invest in this area to stay at parity, in the case that, say, Lyft started predicting revenue for drivers and giving them advances. Still, if the offerings are similar, they may not be a deciding factor for whether a driver goes with Uber or Lyft.

3.  Evaluate capability maturity

Once you segment and prioritize your capabilities, you should evaluate the current state maturity for each capability, as well as the target future state. Evaluating maturity levels is as much art as it is science. As a result, the defining of maturity levels cannot be done independently, and often the conversation around why something is or is not mature is as valuable as whatever score you give yourself.

We recommend undertaking this exercise with cross-functional groups that have an understanding of the capability from different perspectives. We often evaluate capability maturity as a function of process definition, degree of automation, organizational reach, and the measurement of the business outcome. This evaluation will influence the prioritization of near-term investments and will not always coincide 1:1 with the segmentation mentioned above. For example, if you have low maturity in a “parity” capability, you would still want to invest in that capability to get it up to par.

4. Roadmap capability enhancements

Enhancing a capability may require investments in people, processes, or technology. Therefore, a converged team of business function experts and technology leaders should jointly identify improvement activities. IT should lead in aligning the technology services (if your organization uses an ITSM approach) and technical architecture needed to enable these capabilities—but all in the context of how the business process may change. Once you have aligned your technical architecture, IT can identify gaps and redundancies. For example, if you have multiple applications supporting your “expense management” capability, you might opt to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of maintaining all of the applications. Conversely, you might discover you have a prioritized business capability of sales forecasting without a technology architecture supporting or enabling that capability. You might identify this an area where a new technology services is needed to provide data analytics to the sales operations team.

Once developed, capability maps can bridge the gap between strategy and execution by driving organizational alignment around where investments are needed.

For example, we recently helped a growing technology company through this journey. The IT organization had been viewed as an order-taker, and it often struggled to get budget consideration for more strategic projects that would add value to the business, but the CIO was intent on evolving the organization into a more strategic partner.

The CIO knew that the convergence of business process improvement and technology enablement was key, so the team worked closely with business function leaders to develop prioritized capability maps across the organization. Then they leveraged the capability maps to identify areas in greatest need of investment, and in turn forced trade-off decisions that resulted in a meaningful prioritization of focus areas that galvanized the team. The converged business and technology teams, oriented around shared business outcomes, had threaded the needle from strategy to execution.

In the end, one of the business partners said, “We have tried to do this many times over the past six years, and this is by far the best it has ever gone.” That is how IT goes to market differently, and wins.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

SUBSCRIBE! Get the best of CIO delivered to your email inbox.