Optimizing IT for Business: The Executive Perspective
April 24, 2012

Dennis Drogseth

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If you're an IT executive trying to take control of your environment and optimize it for business outcomes — you're likely to be getting a lot of advice from a wide range of glib sources, and very little actual support.

You may be told, for instance, this is the Age of Cloud and that the journey to the cloud will somehow make it all better, a journey that, given cloud’s diffuse and confusing set of options, may seem as vague and even as mystical as the phrase implies.

Along with this, you may be told that you can go from DevOps to Kanban to NoOps in another mystical rite of passage — in which on-demand simulation replaces reality much like Pixar cartoons reduce actors to voices behind ogres and fairies. This would be a lovely world, you are told, in which reality can be outsourced in a blissful infrastructure oblivion, and all you need worry about is furthering your development community – most of which has nevertheless still remained obscured from the real business of IT.

The now struggling – for some good and some bad reasons – IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) weighs in on the global issue of IT-to-business alignment, no longer a nicety but actually a scream in the dark to redefine relevance and value. ITIL wryly or not (I’m never sure) observes: “Organizations are increasingly less focused on IT infrastructure and applications than on coupling applications internally and with business partners in the quest to automate end-to-end business processes and deliver business services. The challenge is to derive operational objectives from business services and to manage accordingly. Business perspectives, however, often do not easily relate to IT infrastructure.” (The italics are mine.)

ITIL prefaces this (in Service Strategy) by saying, “IT organizations intuitively recognize the need to link their activities with business objectives but frequently struggle in deciding how far to go in exposing the linkages between business activities and IT execution.”

Alas, this patient, toe-in-the water approach to turn a complex set of internalized metrics into reflections of clear, external business value doesn’t seem to work at a time when IT can sometimes get bypassed by a the mall of service options that cloud provides.

On the other hand – the extreme position of a NoOps IT with all of its flesh, if not quite all of its heart and soul, in the cloud, seems to miss a huge knot of real-world management considerations, along with the larger fact that IT's transformative power for businesses and organizations depends on effective oversight and control. And that instrumentation which may seem operational can lead to insights into consumer behavior — both internal users and external customers – that may provide the single most resonant place to reposition IT in the years to come.

So is there any source of comfort in all this mess?

I'll point out two not-unrelated areas where I feel the answer is “yes”.

One is a topic I’ve written about lately with its focus on User and Customer Experience Management — and repositioning of IT management capabilities to center in human and business versus purely introverted technical dimensions. Understanding human consumers, their impact on the business and how they relate to your delivered services in terms of relevance and value is finally becoming possible given current technologies — just as it is increasingly becoming necessary.

The other topic — and more the center of attention for today — is the rise of viable executive dashboards that provide support for both operational and business insights, communication requirements, and meaningful and easy access to information.

I recently completed some research on executive dashboard requirements for CA Technologies, which introduced its CA Executive Insight for Service Assurance in Q4 of last year. I am happy to say that the fit between CA's design and vision and the requirements that surfaced in the research were strongly positive. It is, I should stress, a design point that highlights flexibility and access, including real-time and mobile access - to information versus a purely warehouse-centric approach. Just as CA has done, the goal here should be to dynamically access trusted sources of information based on business service context, rather than just pouring all your data into one place and applying analytic gymnastics in an attempt to catch up with data overload.

Some of the write-in comments were especially interesting. To be clear, we looked primarily at three groups — senior IT execs (VP and above), Line of Business and other business executives and professionals, and IT Directors, Managers and senior professionals.

Operational requests featured real-time data, along with comments such as utilization metrics; level and frequency of operational conflicts and failures; cost per incidence break down, and I don't just need numbers, I need to know if action needs to be taken. Ecosystem issues that stretch beyond the IT organization were also high in priority — including SLA integration among external vendors, and a complete diagnostic that could integrate our usage as well as tracking some elements with our third party vendors.

As for access and design, simplicity and self service were key, along with the seemingly contradictory requirement to integrate across many sources (applications, configuration, network, capacity), etc. Daily business awareness was more important than traditional business intelligence — with a consistent focus on currency and immediacy. Collaboration and communication were also key, including social media. And mobile access emerged as a core requirement.

When it came to business alignment, we probably saw the greatest number of comments. These included things like: My biggest single complaint is that my solution cannot tie IT service performance to business outcomes.

And: The software application must be directly applicable to solving issues with the customer line of business - not just a Band-Aid.

And finally: I need truly effective linkages between IT application status/performance and business process improvement/impact.

We are still early in the game in transforming IT from an introverted, process-centric organization to an extroverted, business and consumer-directed organization in which processes become necessarily more fluid rather viewed as Platonically perfect ends in themselves. This will be an era of dialog even more than simulation, with new roles and skills emerging to help recalibrate IT and business objectives in a cohesive, value-centric way, versus the frigid modeling and cost analysis – or worse, the sheer chaos - that's defined IT planning and IT culture in the past.

New capabilities such as advances in User and Customer Experience Management in all their dimensions, and the associated values of accessible and dynamic Executive Dashboards will help to provide a bridge over the abyss between these two worlds and these two ways of thinking. But the connections can, in the end, only be made by flesh-and-blood human beings who will to take the chance and walk across.

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Dennis Drogseth is VP at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA)
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