The experts view: Bringing IT and business operations closer together

How can IT work more closely with the rest of the business? We brought together senior IT executives from a range of sectors to share their opinions at a breakfast meeting.

"We have more sites worldwide than McDonalds and Starbucks combined," said Craig Walker, of Shell, at a recent Business Reporter breakfast briefing at London's Savoy Hotel. "If our location data is wrong then we risk sending people to the wrong place or even to a rival company."

Mr Walker said that as part of an innovation project one of his team had created an application that allowed site managers to input location data themselves, making it far more likely to be correct. This, he said, was an example of how beneficial it can be when IT experts work to understand real business problems and to solve them.

That seems obvious but it is far from the norm, as Eduardo Cruz, of OutSystems, who sponsored the briefing, explained. He said his firm had worked on an app for delivery truck drivers. It soon became clear that whoever had written the requirements for the app had never spoken to one of the company's drivers. If they had, they could have dispensed with 40 per cent of the requirements. The need to work closely with the business could not be clearer.

“Real partnership begins with mutual understanding,” said Sandeep Pandya, of MS Amlin. Much of IT is more complex than it needs to be and staff in the business often don’t understand the basics. Answering the question ‘Why doesn’t my colleague in Geneva appear in my global email address book’, for example, is a small step towards building relationships between IT and the business.

Another small measure is simply allowing staff to benefit from the expertise within IT. Clive Bairsto, from the National Grid, said that one of their most successful measures to bring IT and the business closer together was to open a ‘Tech Bar’, where employees can bring their devices for help.

“Conversations start and relationships are built. It’s expensive but worthwhile,” he said.

Many companies are going a lot further, of course. “Everyone is a coder nowadays,” said Aaron Townsend, of the British Medical Journal, “so we run hack days around the business. Staff form sprint teams, build their apps and the best ideas are voted on.”

This way of working reflects the move to agile project development methods that many businesses have made over the last decade or so. Old-style ‘waterfall’ projects have fallen out of favour because of the speed of business change and the cost of committing to a long project that risks being obsolete by the time it delivers.

One issue with moving to agile is that it requires more input from the business as the project moves along and this is often difficult to achieve. Sometimes the communication difficulties go both ways. Beth Bethell, of St Ives Marketing, said: “Business people are willing to give you a requirement but getting their time to validate and test things with us is very hard.”

However, the rest of the business does not necessarily understand this change in working methods or the reason for it. Staff hack days are one way to spread the word. Another is simply to have them try the methods for themselves. Peter Buckley, of publishers DK, said: “A lot of our print teams have daily stand-up meetings now. We even run ‘paper hack days’ internally to generate new ideas for books.”

It isn’t simply a case of expecting the business to understand IT skills, though. The reverse also has to be true. “We have made a big investment in people change management skills in IT so that they have the skills to help the business change,” said Richard Steward of Clear Channel.

Attendees agreed that it is also important to demonstrate your value to the business. People skills are good but sometimes ‘show, don’t tell’ is the best approach. “If what we think is needed is cultural change then removing obstacles for the business clearly isn’t enough,” said Paul Wiltshire of OutSystems. “You have to bring about cultural change by actually delivering. If you produce a great product then the business won’t need persuading.”

Ultimately, everyone shares the same goal but IT and the rest of the business can sometimes feel like enemies, or at least ill-suited partners. “All we want to do is help the business to do what they want to do in the safest way possible,” said Mr Walker.

The last word went to Mr Wiltshire, who noted: “We were talking about these same problems 30 years ago and although a lot has changed, the basics haven’t changed at all. It still comes down to improving communication between people.”