Bridging the gap Featured

1:29pm EDT September 20, 2006
When a company starts to feel the pain and burden of outdated software or systems within their business, it only then realizes the importance of information technology. The use of an IT company is usually a reactive approach to technology problems.

“Today, it seems that businesses live or die based on the software they use, but success or failure usually has more to do with the way systems are developed and executed,” says Jim McAllister, practice manager - software engineering at Systems Evolution.

Smart Business spoke with McAllister about how a company can work to bridge such gaps, the benefits of doing so successfully, and reasons why it shouldn’t follow only on the heels of a lost opportunity or unsuccessful IT project.

How does a company bridge the gap between business and IT?
First, it is important to realize that there are two gaps. The first is the traditional concept of gaps between existing system capabilities and the operational needs of the business. The second — and often overlooked — is the gap between IT and business users’ understanding of the desired end product.

In order to bridge both of these gaps, both the business users and their IT counterparts need to work together to identify and ensure agreement on what is needed to satisfy both functional and technical requirements. IT employees use practiced techniques in gathering or eliciting these gaps by observing company operations and by speaking with business process owners.

Product teams should align the solutions they develop with true business needs or requirements. Requirements should be articulated by employees representing the lines of business. It is also important to speak with all stakeholders when trying to develop an effective software plan. Requirements should be elicited from all groups, and their dependency on a system should be determined and factored in to the iterative and final versions of the software or product.

How does bridging the gap benefit a company?
While it costs business money to develop new, efficient programs or products, it can cost much more to spend money on a solution that does not successfully deliver the desired results.

The discipline known as ‘requirements management’ is aimed at first identifying and understanding the problems or opportunities that a business is facing. In executing this process, problems are translated into information as a set of requirements that an IT team or outside vendor can use to develop a solution that appropriately addresses the highest priorities. Failing to first identify such problems can lead to technology solutions that may not deliver any true business value.

During the requirements management process, all departments of a company must agree on the system’s objective. If the objective is not determined properly and outlined specifically, a company risks wasting money developing a program that does not provide the features necessary to operate the company effectively and efficiently.

Why should companies invest time and money into an IT department?
A business that is currently operating without an IT department or a trusted outside consultant is likely not operating as effectively and efficiently as possible. With proper programs and systems, a company can increase productivity and reduce manpower, enabling a larger portion of the business to focus on its core competencies.

A business should routinely evaluate its operations systems and determine what processes could be enhanced and where the challenges or pains are. Similarly, high-performing IT departments should continuously research and investigate new technologies and processes.

What should a business look for in an IT department or partner?
A company should research the success of its internal or external IT capability by assessing its track record. Internal departments should be expected to demonstrate success and consistently deliver acceptable ROI relative to their fully loaded cost to the company.

Furthermore, a business must understand the approach an IT department or outside vendor takes to implementing programs and systems. Team leaders should be defined before a project is started, and they should meet with the business to better understand the needs of any new or updated solution.

A business should look for what makes an IT vendor company different from its competitors. This may include the department or vendor’s ability to innovate around a new or complex problem, a demonstrated track record of successfully delivering projects of similar size, scale and scope, or best-in-class processes.

Mature businesses may also look for features, such as a comprehensive set of services to help manage a company’s infrastructure, or consulting services in an area such as software engineering where building extensive in-house expertise may not be cost-effective.

JIM McALLISTER is practice manager - software engineering for Systems Evolution, Inc. Reach him at (713) 979-1600, ext. 101, or jim.mcallister@systemsevolution.com.