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'Do You Want Fries with That?'

By Peter Armstrong

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Have you ever visited a restaurant and had the waiter bring you a meal before you even mentioned what you wanted to order? It’s unlikely.

That simple process of getting what you want involves looking over the menu and making an educated decision based on what appeals to your taste buds, diet requirements, and how much you’re willing to spend.

Only after going through that mental exercise, you, as a customer, can place your order.

This step-by-step concept for decision making should be easy to digest in the business world, but can often be ignored by IT organizations when they are approached by people who need their services.

Ask Questions

The trouble with many IT organizations is that they may try to deliver all three courses before going back to the business and first saying, “Excuse me, but what do you actually want?” You’d be surprised at how often people begin work on IT projects without asking the right questions first.

After the business customer explains the needs and why they’re important, then you can give your customer some options. You could say that the a la carte choices can consist of access anytime, all the time, with sub-second response times, but it’s going to cost $2 million. Or, you can offer today’s special, access only during extended business hours, 8 A.M. to 8 P.M., with the cost to serve about 75% less.

If that doesn’t meet the budget requirements, you can offer some fixed-price menus with lesser offerings at a lower price. That’s the kind of conversation you should have before you get started on meeting the needs of the business.

These business requirements and expectations help make up service level agreements between IT and the business. In reality, however, service level agreements aren’t always agreements, sometimes they are really service-level compromises. The problem is often knowing when to compromise and when not to.

How do you determine the answer? One way to answer this is to ask the business managers what they need. Then take it to the next level within the organization to establish the worth of the project to the business. If you have no idea of its worth, then how can you make a decision on how much to spend to deliver this service?

A customer once told me that he wanted to extend the company’s online day by three hours, and to squeeze down all the routine batch activities that happen at night. In the old days, I would have recommended the techniques, processes and products available, and how these products worked to achieve this objective. But that approach just doesn’t work anymore.

The fundamental question I asked this customer was, “Why do you want three extra hours?” He gave me five good business reasons for doing this, and then my next question was designed to focus on what they were worth to the company: “How much money will it save or generate?”

If your business customer can’t clearly explain why a project should be done and what it’s worth in business terms, then go back to square one and don't do the project. IT should be challenging the business to put a value on requests before rushing in to satisfy them.

Probe for Details

Once a requestor has been able to give you a satisfactory answer about why a project should be done and can identify its value, then get more details. Identify the quantifiable benefits related to the request. If your business user wants two extra hours of availability on a Saturday morning because a machine normally shuts down at that time when the IT center closes ask what it’s worth to have the machine up and running. Since it will require an investment in time and technology to make this happen, measure the quantifiable benefits against the costs of implementing them.

Only then should you decide whether IT can make it happen, how much it will cost, and whether it makes sense to deliver this service. These are important steps for successfully aligning IT with the goals of business.

After you understand the business objective, and benefits, focus on executing on that vision. Identify what service levels your users are expecting and the upcoming capacity growth requirements. Identify the other new projects in the works that will impact your ability to meet those service levels on this new project as well as the schedule. And, of course, understand budget constraints related to the request.

Embrace ITIL

Resources are available to help you manage these projects from a business perspective. That’s where the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) can be extremely useful. It framework provides guidelines to help you know where you are in a process, where you want to go, how to get there, and how to determine whether you’ve been successful.

The latest ITIL book, The Business Perspective: The IS View on Delivering Services to the Business , is especially helpful for IT organizations wanting to better align with the business. It recommends creating a senior IT management role called business relationship manager (BRM) who is responsible for opening lines of communication and maintaining relationships with line-of-business managers who use IS services.

ITIL also helps identify the measurements required to help you get started. For example, if your business requirements are to improve your help desk, ITIL processes will help you identify how long it takes to answer a call and escalate a problem. It will help you determine how many incidents get solved at level one, how many have to be forwarded to level two (which is more costly), and how long it takes to resolve a problem.

These issues need to be understood before implementing the enabling technology. Keep in mind that the technology that supports your processes should be ITIL compatible so that you know you’re using proven best practices, instead of processes developed from scratch.

It’s important for IT to ask the right questions before beginning new projects and to follow best practices in ITIL to make them successful. By following ITIL guidelines and asking pertinent questions up front, you’ll be in a much better position to align IT initiatives with the goals of the business. You can deliver the kind of service the business expects and have confidence that you’re meeting your company’s objectives — without biting off more than you can chew.

Peter Armstrong is corporate strategist of Business and Information Technology for BMC Software. He is responsible for discussing the increasing importance of how business and IT need to work together. Armstrong is a renowned speaker, and is well known throughout the world as a presenter, educator and author.