The technology puzzle

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For more than a decade now the proportion of organisational technology spend being managed outside of the IT team has grown rapidly. Most industry analysts reckon that the split in IT spending is nearly 50/50 between IT controlled and spent outside of IT. There are many reasons offered as to why this move has happened, however it is hard to escape the reality that the underlying cause is that IT teams have not been meeting the perceived needs of the organisation. Why else would "the business" seek to go around IT? The issue that fascinates is the impact that this fracturing of IT spending is having on an organisation's ability to deliver value from their technology investments.

At first glance there doesn't appear to be any reason to think that this change in spending pattern has done anything but increase the value delivered by technology. After all most business people would argue that with local delivery they get systems better suited to their needs and that these systems are delivered more quickly. That may be true, particularly from their individual perspective, but is it true for the organisation?

I read and think a lot about what it takes to deliver value from IT investments and I have never read a case study of an organisation who has delivered value from IT through a department owned, uncoordinated and fragmented approach. Every case study that I have read is a case study of an organisation who treats IT investment strategically and sets out to create a coordinated, leveragable technology platform that sets them apart in the marketplace.

Authors have their own way of expressing this. In Leading Digital, Westerman, Bonnet and McAfee advise that digital transformation is driven top down by strong executive leadership and is based on a combination of great digital capability and great digital leadership. In "IT Savvy" Weill and Ross implore us to fix what's broken, streamline and simplify and to build and leverage the digital platform. In The CIO Edge Waller, Hallenbeck and Rubenstrunk highlight the need for both IT management systems and IT leadership skills. Waller subsequently teamed with Raskino and wrote Digital to the Core. The title says it all.

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Believing that independent actors can design a coherent puzzle is ultimately what is behind a lot of shadow IT. Owen McCall

Digital to the core, not digital strapped on team by team based on whatever they thought they need in the moment. Yet increasingly that is how more and more companies are building their systems. It's getting worse as organisations clamour to go digital - we have to act now and we have to act fast.

The result? A series of tactical standalone or badly integrated initiatives that may solve a point problem or appear to provide point value. However with this approach you end up building tactically towards a lack of coherence with no or very limited real value being created.

So what's the answer? The answer is you need to design and deploy your technology strategically. I think that designing technology strategically is a lot like what I imagine designing a jigsaw puzzle would be. You design top down starting with the picture (or vision) you are seeking to create. You then determine the pieces and how the pieces fit together. Once you know this you can cut the pieces however you want them as long as they are within the big picture. You could even cut puzzles within puzzles if you want and if this is an organisational systems puzzle you most likely will want to, so you can delegate responsibility for sub puzzles out into the organisation.

Of course a puzzle needs to be made. That's the purpose of the puzzle, to recreate the picture by putting the pieces back together. It's the same with systems. Once you have the design and know the pieces you need to build and deploy your systems. Your focus is the pieces and joining the pieces together but it only works if the design is right in the first place. If you have designed puzzles within puzzles you can even let your user departments own their puzzle and have any pieces they want, provided it complies with the original piece / sub puzzle.

It is very difficult if not impossible to design a jigsaw puzzle by getting independent actors to design certain pieces only and then expect them to work together. Yet this is exactly what we do with systems. We let individual departments and teams select and design their own systems. The marketing team owns and selects the marketing systems. The CFO and their team selects the financial systems the head of HR the HR systems, the COO drives supply chain and manufacturing.

Believing that independent actors can design a coherent puzzle is ultimately what is behind a lot of shadow IT. There is no doubt that SaaS and easy to consume cloud services is making this easier to do, here's a piece I think I need for my puzzle and I'm just going to go and get it. This can work, provided you have designed your systems puzzle first and know how the pieces are going to fit together. But most of us don't, and then we wonder why we are not delivering on IT’s potential.

Owen McCall is an experienced management consultant and CIO, and a member of the editorial advisory board of CIO New Zealand. Reach him through

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