Continuing our journey examining keys to success (see parts one and two in this series), this article looks at the role of technology and how we can decide on the right technologies to support business imperatives. The emphasis will be on right and more so than on the technologies.
Technology assessment plays a key role in determining this. We will frame our assessment along three dimensions: existing investments, organization fit and business reliance, and future strategies.
The first task is to look within your organization at the investments that have been made over time. Technology investments related to database technologies, integration technologies and reporting toolsets need to be cataloged.
Disparate database technologies are more a norm than the exception at most companies. Because integration technologies and business intelligence platforms are able to access most database platforms, this is usually not a challenge. Developing talent around multiple database technologies is a challenge, though, and it’s important to standardize on data warehouse database technology. Additionally, in order to achieve scale to support growing business needs, it’s also important to settle on a standard database platform for your BI tools.
Integration technologies are the back-end engines of moving information across the organization, and when they work well, they usually don’t get noticed by the business. If an organization hasn’t invested in a tier-1 integration technology, then there’s room for improvement. It is necessary to evaluate whether engaging massive code/data migration to a new (maybe better) integration technology really be worth the effort in the grand scheme of priorities for the company in the short/mid-term. Timing, as always, is the key.
Most mid to large-sized companies have invested in some type of reporting technology, and some of them have invested in more than one platform. It’s important to look at how these technology choices were made. Were they driven by senior management needs, departmental needs or pure technology decisions? When an organization brings in new leadership at the senior management level, they bring with them past experiences, best practices and new perspectives along with preferences for certain technologies. If an organization has multiple reporting technologies, then over the course of time, at least some constituents within the company have championed the tool and adopted it (the numbers may vary across the organization).
The preceding step will help you identify the origins of your current state, and it’s important to understand the current state in order to chart a future-state course. When we look at the companies that have done this well, its usually not because of better IT or BI talent, but because there’s some kind of “fit” in the application of the technologies. It’s important to assess internal and external needs. The needs might be operational or strategic. Sometimes operational and tactical needs get sidelined because of the emphasis on strategic decisions, but this is not good either, since a company’s strategy is executed via its operations. There must be a fit between the strategic imperatives and the execution component as well.
Whether or not the reporting tools already in place have delivered on the original promise, people have likely grown accustomed to using them. They would have made adjustments to their work processes around the tool’s features and functionality. These capabilities might include look and feel, data and security integration with other systems or ease of use. Examine how the organization relies on and makes decisions based on information presented from the tools. Before introducing a new technology, the current business reliance has to always be assessed and measured. At the other end of the spectrum, one might face a situation where the business is pressing for change due to lack of capabilities in the current technology.
The IT talent and the business adoption are also investments that the company has made. Introducing a new tool, however appropriate the technology, causes disruption. Skills, talent and career progression with IT teams might have been developed around certain technologies and tools. Introducing new technologies might raise more questions than most IT leadership is prepared to answer. This kind of disruption, although necessary sometimes, must be carefully planned and managed.
Business and technology leaders are typically able to articulate key business imperatives well. When it comes to technology assessments, the business imperatives need to be factored into the assessments. However, it is often more difficult for company leadership to connect the business strategies to the technology decisions. I will illustrate this with an example of how strategic decisions and technology choices can be tied together.
The health care vertical is largely service-oriented and especially information-centric. In the health care vertical, there are organizations that provide value-added services to the major players (like the health plans). Let’s say a company’s business model and business strategy is to increase revenue through either vertical or horizontal integration. These organizations may provide services to many business partners and become part of the information value chain for the health plans. How do these companies source information to their business partners? Traditionally, the integration was soft and was in an offline mode. Data and reports would be sent across the wire without either party having live access to a reporting system. But this offline transfer model is not sustainable because in an information-centric industry like health care, information has to be timely as well to be useful.
Thus, a company must consider the prevalent technologies for the industry as a whole as well as the organization. If every major company/client/business partner in your industry has invested in Cognos (IBM) technology, then given the above business consideration, Cognos would be right decision for you.
If, on the other hand, a company’s strategy is to empower its users with information and enable self-service to an information portal, then the view is more internal, unlike above. In this type of situation, existing investments would play a large role and so would organizational fit. If the company has some products from Business Objects (SAP) already in house with some degree of adoption success, then that would be the natural choice.
Notice that I used Cognos and Business Objects here in the examples. Both are tier-1 platforms and for the most part can do the same kinds of things. But the right choice would be the one that aligns with the company’s overall strategy and helps support the future growth.
The proper the data architecture is extremely important because it is the foundation on which information delivery is built. It influences everything from developing an enterprise data warehouse to developing operational data stores, data marts and cubes. To help manage the impact of the architecture selection, a technology blueprint is needed. This explains the role of these different constructs and how each of them can help a particular strategic initiative. For example, if one of the strategic initiatives of the company is to provide a comprehensive and timely 360-degree view of the member, then the construct to provide this is a combination of real-time integration technologies and a member subject area-based ODS. The blueprint needs to include use cases (like I just explained) in order for it to be a playbook for execution.
To wrap up this technology discussion, the keys to stay focused and make good decisions when selecting technology are to:
- Remember how you got here, including organizational preferences and existing investments;
- Be mindful of organizational and personal preferences as well as impact decisions may have on jobs and careers; and
- Be sure IT leadership possesses a deeper understanding of the business strategy and the current industry-wide strategic trends.
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