Agile just gets better – and not just for IT

Agile just gets better. I am increasingly convinced this is “The Way” ahead – not just for online small projects, but for large scale business change as well and elements in normal waterfall projects.

Here is a case in point, I visited our “Nimbus” Agile Stream on Friday where we are building the new front end for our Cargo frontline colleagues – part of a major legacy migration.

There, having been “stuck” for some time, they set up an Agile Team with some expert advice and training and in 40 days we have a working User Interface with pretty full functionality. So what’s made the difference? First there are the agile methods, setting priorities, building the team, populating the wall, making releases every 2 or 3 weeks and so on.

But I think the principal difference was the two colleagues from the Cargo Business who were present with the team writing their “user stories” and posting them on the wall. They were then there as an integral part of the Team to see their stories built and launched, and were able to say “well that’s what we want” or “not quite” or “no that doesn’t work”.

As with all brilliant innovations when you see it working it seems so obvious – why didn’t we do that before.

Cargo say that they will be trying these techniques with their business changes and our Commercial colleagues already use agile techniques – like stand ups, the wall and customer stories to design major business initiatives.

By the way I set myself the challenge of using the iPad screen keypad to write this – and it’s not at all bad!

Three Popular Misconceptions about IT Investment

I was interviewed recently about IT trends in the air transport indutry.

The inevitable question came up as to levels of spending – are they going up or down in the Recession? are they enough? – the idea being, presumably,  that a headline will result from this like “Airlines cut IT investment” or “Airline CIO says not enough investment in IT”.   

This line of questioning made me think again about these issues and the constant fixation on what I believe are the essentially misconceived questions “How much is Company X spending?” or “How much is the Government going to cut?”, presumably for the edification of suppliers and IT salespeople.

In my view, these questions miss the point by miles, for three reasons:

First, people lump together in “IT spend” or IT investment” both real investment and spending on keeping the IT you have going or up-to-date.  The terms used, especially in political or journalistic statements, are terribly imprecise. 

There are several interesting question in here, but they are all very different. These are:

  • How much do you spend keeping your IT operations running to service level, and in a safe and secure manner?
  • How much does it cost for you to replace your hardware and infrastructure and renew software going out of support? and
  • What are you investing in IT that supports changing your business?

The question which any business should be strategically interested in is “How much are you investing in changing your business?” These days, most transformations are enabled by IT, whether they are revenue-generating, cost-saving or customer-delighting.

Second, when you look at a business transformation, the IT is only part of the equation. 

We all know that new IT systems – whether ERPs, CRMs, web sites or social networking – succeed or fail, not on whether the IT works, but on whether the processes are thought through and aligned with the IT, and – most importantly – on whether customers or colleagues can actually use it.  

So simply adding up the cost of the IT is quite meaningless.  “There are no IT projects, only business projects” – so the costs of any project should include involvement by the business, staff training, business process re-engineering: whatever it takes to deliver the whole change. 

Third and finally, the amount of spend and resources deployed has no correlation either with the success of a project or, indeed, with the business benefits delivered.  Some of the worst disasters have been the biggest projects – just look at some (by no means all) of the recent Government IT investments. In many ways, the larger and more complex a project is, the more likely it is to fail.  The use of Agile development methods has shown that small and frequent deliveries can give great business benefits for relatively small amounts of resources.

So, in summary, just adding up the amount of “IT Investment” is not going to tell you anything about whether it is worthwhile – or indeed a complete waste of money.

Corporate IT just got interesting again – 6 IT mega-trends that are changing business

Here we are with the World coming out of Recession carrying a massive burden of debt, but with a pressing need – and the opportunity – to grow our economy and to grow our businesses. This makes a nice change!

So, if the challenge over the last two years was to save and save again to survive, now the challenge we face is to keep making savings – but also to grow, find new markets, win new customers and turn losses into profits.

There are several “technology mega-trends” here that are turning the business world upside down.  What is going to happen is that the functionality and the capability that we are all getting to know and love in our personal lives is going to move into how we all work.

So just think about what we like about the iPhone:

  • Ease of use – it’s intuitive, you don’t need training
  • Ability to download the apps you want, when you want
  • Speed of delivery of service – no-one likes waiting
  • Presence – the device, and therefore the apps, know where you are
  • Mobility – you want to be connected whenever and wherever you want, and
  • Affordability – the cost of end-user devices and the cost of apps is accessible: you don’t need a business case to add apps once you have invested in the basic infrastructure.

If you had to characterise the nature of business systems that most companies and most of their employees have to use, though, you would say they are:

  • hard to use – you do need training
  • you need experts to source and load the software for your applications
  • it can takes years to build a new system
  • it doesn’t know where you are
  • you normally have to find a terminal or desktop or kiosk to use IT, and
  • you need to make a business case for a new piece of software because it is expensive and is licensed.

These six technology mega-trends will revolutionise the way we do business:

  1. Touch and video technology mean that the old screen and keyboard is very old hat
  2. New Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) enables users to access systems and data from across their business and partners, whether in legacy or modern technologies
  3. Agile methods of development bring business and IT together in iterative development of the functionality that is needed, with releases every fortnight not every 2 years
  4. Phones, parts, cards and tags will automatically show their Presence and identify, users, customers and their assets and attributes IF they want
  5. Mobile devices will connect everyone with their work-place, the colleagues and friends and the infinite information accessible on the intranet, wherever they are – even in mid-flight
  6. The advent of Cloud Computing means that normal businesses can access the economics that have previously only been available to the likes of Google and Amazon.

These mega-trends offer a future that is totally connected, totally flexible and totally easy to use – and much cheaper.

This is the big challenge for the CIO of the Future:  how do we give our users what they want and are used to at home at an affordable price?

See my last post about SOA for a part of the answer…..

We all know the answer but few can execute

I was at a presentation last week on a successful IT project, or rather a successful project with IT at its heart.   Someone said all you have to do to deliver success is, “to link people and their processes to the technology”.  

Well, that says it all really and it’s tempting to just stop there. 

We all know that you can test IT systems and you should be able to make them work.  After all, they do what you tell them to do, don’t they, being simply ones and zer0s?   When things go wrong, it’s almost always because the IT does not fit the processes and/or the people are not ready or bought into using the new system.

I have had my share of such painful experiences – and we all try and learn from our mistakes. 

But, if you think about it, the answer is to form multi-disciplinary teams composed of experts in IT, experts in process, experts in how people change and – of course – experts in joining it all up. 

So why, if we all know this is the answer, does this not happen?  

I suggest there are two reasons, fundamentally.

First, companies like to keep IT in its box and, often, technology people like to live in their IT box too.   These days, every process in almost every business is enabled or driven by technology, so there is no excuse for separating process and IT.  

It sounds easy put like that, but no two business – or their processes – are the same.   Some processes need to be changed to fit the technology.  Others are so important or mission-critical that the IT has to change.   The challenge and the skill comes in judging what to change and when to change, so as to seamlessly join IT and process in harmony.

And this is easy when you compare it with the people issues!  Businesses are not just about investment and returns – they are about people’s interactions as customers and as colleagues.   Indeed, there are now some systems that just interact with other systems. But in the vast majority of cases, it’s still us who have to use them – so ease of use matters, training matters, availability matters and design matters.   

Indeed, if there is one thing I have learnt about introducing new IT, it is to work out how much training is needed, double it and then double it again.

So why do we sometimes still keep the IT people in one place, the process experts in another and the human factors folks somewhere else?   Well, that’s how organisations like to do it and our role is to challenge that.

Second – you can’t outsource accountability for joined up change.   Yes, of course, you can hire in the best technicians or analysts, web designers, you name it.   But when we talk about the intersection of IT, process and people, we are talking about the fundamentals of what makes a business function.  Yes, of course, take good advice and use the best people you can hire, but if there is a heart and soul to an organisation, this is where it resides.

You have to work out what you want to do and how you are going to get people to do it.

As we all know, the failure rates of IT projects that are reported are terrifying.  The amount of money wasted is large and the careers ruined many.   And yet we know the answer lies in joining things up effectively across boundaries and org-charts.

So – to end on a note of hope – the recent trends in the UK to use LEAN and AGILE techniques do exactly this.   They value people changing as the key to effective business change, and they hang process change – and then IT – off that. 

They involve people in their own processes and ask them what they think needs improving.  They put business and IT experts together in the same place and get them jointly to solve problems.   This has got to be a better way…

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