While many initiatives have been introduced in order to bring the two functions closer together, often companies still experience a real gap, and this lack of harmony can seriously impact an organisation’s ability to get the most out of its collective assets. As IDC’s Henry Morris puts it, "One of the biggest challenges for any organisation is ensuring alignment between the information needs of the business and the flexibility and responsiveness of the IT systems to deliver on those needs.”
It’s safe to say that business and IT have never been happy bedfellows. Business executives often believe IT is slow to respond, costly and incapable of working with the business teams. IT, on the other hand, sees business as unrealistically demanding chameleons who change their minds about what they want the second it’s delivered to them. IT wants to build solid, cost-effective solutions, whereas their business counterparts want to concentrate on making decisions that will impact positively on the future success of the company. In short, many companies find it impossible to discuss IT in terms of business goals and financial results.
Information is the lifeblood of both departments, but ironically it is within large information management projects that the differences become most apparent. All too frequently, the business executives ask IT to provide the information they need and IT tells the business what kind of data it is able to provide. Rarely are the two the same, particularly in the face of changing business requirements. The result: instant problems.
However, the two share a common frustration in the difficulty of obtaining the right corporate data in time to make key business decisions. Reporting to the board on the company’s performance, tracking product profitability or monitoring the success of global marketing campaigns relies enormously on the availability of accurate, robust and easily accessible data.
Yet procuring the valuable information required, especially in a complex, global company, has proved to be a highly difficult task. Large multi-nationals have so many different IT systems that their IT infrastructures are often unmanageably complex. Despite (ultimately futile) efforts towards standardisation in the past, these companies are still struggling with this multitude of different source systems. As a result, a large proportion of IT executives are tied up with maintenance and fire-fighting rather than using their time and expertise to provide value to the business.
One technology often deployed to make data more readily available is the data warehouse. Designed to bring together a company or division’s diverse data into one place for easy analysis, data warehouses - along with reporting tools - were intended to revolutionise decision-making. However, the brittleness of traditional solutions meant that rather than empowering companies, it actually had the opposite effect of restraining them. Once the data warehouse has been configured to address the corporate organisation as it stands today, things inevitably change. Seemingly minor changes such as the addition of products to the portfolio or amendments to sales codes are facts of everyday life, yet these can cause major upheaval in the IT side of the house.
Ensuring data is available and accurate following mergers and acquisitions, new regulatory requirements, or organisational restructuring can become an IT exec’s worst nightmare. What’s required? Data viewed in the “context” of how a company makes money- its business model.
As the rate of business change increases, it becomes even more imperative for IT and business to be in synch. Therefore, it seems obvious to me that an approach is needed that reduces the gap between the business people and the data they need to make successful decisions. Organisations must adopt agile information management strategies that can be quickly implemented by IT, but that involve the business in the planning right from the start. It is imperative that business people get access to the right data, which they can actively manage, amend, and act upon without the need to involve the IT department at every turn.
Such an “Active Information Management” (AIM) approach is being increasingly adopted by organizations. Active Information Management solutions can rapidly iterate, evolve and adapt to changing business conditions without time-consuming and custom programming. Business executives are able to cut through the IT complexities that they do not - and shouldn’t need to - understand, in order to attain an accurate view of measures such as performance and profitability. Quicker development and deployment of IT systems clearly means cost-savings for the IT department, and rapid access to information represents an immediate competitive advantage, as decisions can be taken more quickly and with more confidence.
In addition to the improved insight into business performance, such an approach also reduces risk by capturing changes to the information, providing a trustworthy audit trail for regulatory compliance and governance. AIM is also, crucially, agnostic of vendor technologies, so the diversity of source systems that feed into AIM solutions - which can include next-generation data warehouses and master data management software - is no longer an issue. This should come as welcome news for those organisations struggling with company-wide SAP rollouts!
Several forward-thinking organisations have even implemented new divisions in order to bridge the gap between business and IT. Unilever operates the “Unilever Information Office” to ensure that appropriate company information is delivered across the business, and Labatt has a similar proposition with its “Financial Business Information” department. The bottom line is that the business side must step up and take responsibility for their data, as well as the transformation of that data in to real business information they can use to make strategic - and tactical - decisions.
An AIM strategy enables companies to bridge the gap between business and IT immediately, and acts as an enabler for future projects. By providing a better environment for managing data - actively - many of the clashes can be stamped out, meaning business people can do what they are best at, and so can IT.
Bill Hewitt is the CEO of data management software vendor Kalido