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Armstrong on IT-Business Alignment

Illustration: Peter Armstrong

If you research the business case for performance on the Web, eventually you're sure find yourself reading something published on a site called NextSLM.org, a site sponsored by BMC Software. One contributor is a former colleague of mine, Peter Armstrong.

Peter and I started our careers with IBM UK in the 70's as SE's supporting IMS customers. Although information technology has evolved a bit since then, our interests apparently have not diverged much. Peter now writes a BMC blog called Adopting a Service (Management) Mentality, which focuses on the increasingly important domain of how business and information technology need to work together --the area he is responsible for at BMC.

Two nations?

Buried in the archives of the NextSLM site is an essay by Peter entitled Why IT and Business Need to Talk: Two Nations Separated by a Common Language? I will extract some key paragraphs, adding my own emphasis in each section. Written (as best as I can tell) in 2003, it is peppered with stories of IT and business not communicating, for example:

Your IT department has spent days gathering all the information on server availability, and come to the board meeting ready to prove that they have been delivering 99.99% availability for the last week and cannot understand why anybody is complaining. Unfortunately the application is being used by online options traders who need a response time of less than 12 seconds in which to make a trade. Availability is meaningless to them without performance.

Peter sets out to explain why IT and business have to learn a common language. He writes about the cultural and historical reasons for the divide between the two sides, and the challenges they face in achieving the much-desired state of alignment. Being familiar with how IT works, he observes that:

Many IT departments focus on the technology and delivery of availability of platforms, databases and applications. But although all of these are important, it is how these elements interact to provide a business service that is the key issue. It is vital that the IT department understands not only the technology but also the way that the technology interacts to deliver service ...

IT needs to understand that its sole function in life is to enable the business to run better. This means that it is either helping to reduce costs, and/or it is helping you increase revenues ...

However, the IT department is between a rock and a hard place as they are being told to reduce costs, and by far the most important factor is actually quality of service. But when budgets are restricted, it is also the one factor that often gets pushed down the list of selection criteria. Some managers see low cost and high quality of service as being mutually exclusive but this need not to be the case.

The whole story ...

This article claims to be the first of two parts, but its link to the second part -- How Good is My Service -- is broken. But Google found me this PDF, which seems to contain the original essay before it was split into parts. In the second half, Peter discusses several aspects of SLM. Looking first at Web sites, Peter highlights how vital it is that companies doing business online understand their customers' point of view. Someone needs to ask:

  • Who is using your IT systems? Why are they using them? What are you trying to sell them?
  • Is it easy to contact you if they have problems? Is the data up-to-date?
  • Are the systems available (and this includes performance)?
  • What are the availability and performance requirements (some systems perform better than required, which is a waste of money)?
  • Do you have Service Level Agreements (SLAs) in place and are you measuring against them?
  • Are you measuring from the end-user point of view or from your own point of view?

Turning his attention to service management and the nature of SLA's, Peter writes:

The cornerstone of any managed services contract is the service level agreement. This is meant to be the yardstick that measures the performance of the service provider, but unless the agreement is written and reported on with measurable and meaningful values it can lead to very difficult situations ...

I was visiting a major customer last year, whose IT operations are outsourced to one of the major outsourcing companies. The contract is, of course, couched in terms of CPU (processor resources) used, number of housekeeping jobs run, number of tape mounts etc. -- totally and utterly wrong in my opinion. The bank wants a service -- how the outsourcer actually implements it technically should be of no concern as long as it is safe, reliable and conforms to the business SLAs ...

Reporting is another critical area that can get overlooked. A good IT department will not only provide good service but also prove it by providing meaningful reports. These reports should relate directly to the service being provided to the customer and also show the value that the IT department is bringing to the equation. They should be couched in language that the business people can understand -- Oracle availability is meaningless, ability to print invoices on time is significant.

Like me, Peter is a strong advocate of measurement tools, which should be deployed within a systematic SLM framework such as ITIL. [Since we work for companies that sell tools and services, you might be inclined to discount our views. But I'm sure Peter would agree with me that this is a "chicken and egg" situation -- we work for tool vendors because we believe in the value of their tools and services, and not vice versa.] Peter writes:

At a technical level the key issue is how the IT department actually proposes to manage the environment. The use of industry-leading solutions and best-practice methodologies should be common to all good service providers, but they are surprisingly often absent.

Some IT departments see tools merely as a way of reducing their cost of operation by reducing the number of people required to manage the environment. However, the use of tools to manage technology can greatly increase the availability and performance of the infrastructure. By exploiting the functionality within the toolset and applying that functionality to best-practice standards such as ITIL, the business -- and ultimately the customer -- receives the benefits.

Through implementation of sensible IT processes, combined with business-related tools and methodologies, the advantage to the business is the true and correct exploitation of the IT investment. This is why the two parties need to learn to talk to one another.

It is clear that Peter's thinking has subsequently found its way into BMC's more sanitized (and glossier) marketing materials on this topic, like his whitepaper on Seven Strategies for Enabling IT to Activate the Business [pdf], and this corporate strategy brochure on Business Service Management [pdf]. But Peter's original essay reveals better the strength of his personal belief in the importance of SLM to the business. I share that belief, and endorse his conclusions.

[This post was first published on Blogger on November 8, 2005.]

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