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Taking Sides

  • November 01 2002, 1:00am EST
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Over time, the evolution of technical resources has had an interesting influence on more than the speed at which things get done. There is what we might call a "psychological" effect on the way people work together (or don't) based on the allocation and distribution of computational resources. A clear example lies in the miniaturization of computers. Thirty-five years ago, analysts time-shared on huge computers housed in separate rooms; the services provided were purely operational as the computers did not contain any business intelligence applications at all. Twenty years ago, we ushered in the era of both the minicomputer (operating as a "departmental resource") and the personal computer, along with the trend of distributed computing. With a machine on his or her desktop, a business manager could make use of local applications (seminal personal business applications such as VisiCalc or WordPerfect) for both operational and intelligence-oriented processing; one no longer needed to be a FORTRAN IV programmer carrying stacks of punch cards to use computers. There was a need for technical support, and the concept of the information technology (IT) department evolved into a technology development, support and evaluation organization investigating new hardware and applications, etc.

However, the way the information technology department has evolved has imposed an artificial boundary between those who require computer services and those who provide them, mostly because the ability to build user-friendly software has broken down the barrier that was blocking the entry to computer exploitation. In turn, there is a greater need for both technicians to solve problems with computer use, as well as those who can translate a business user's problems into a collection of technical issues. While the way that these IT personnel were compensated evolved into complicated charge-backs and accounting tricks, it was clear that the division between business and IT is essentially a budgetary one: IT is a cost center, as opposed to the business units, which are supposed to be profit centers. However, this split imposes a deeper philosophical division between information technology providers and business users because the interaction framework is built around the IT folks asking the business folks to support (monetarily) the IT initiatives.

For example, I was recently at a conference for data warehouse users and data warehouse professionals; and, as usual, I encountered the standard complaints. The implementers say, "We want to do such-and-such an improvement, but our budget has been cut. How can we do this without additional spending?" The users say, "We expected the data warehouse to be online already, but it is a year late, over budget and still unusable!" The implementers say, "We want to get the project finished, but the requirements keep changing!" The users say, "The business environment continues to change, and the requirements are no longer what they were a year ago when we first planned the project." Clearly, the entities perceived as the "IT side" and the "business side" have aligned themselves in an adversarial manner. The IT question I heard most frequently was not about any kind of technical issue; rather, it was some version of "How can I convince my business partner to fund my project?"

Taking this interaction to its extreme, both sides are eventually dissatisfied because reduced budgets lead to missed deadlines, and business-side expectations are not likely to be met. On the other side, there is another interesting phenomenon that I have noticed during the past few years, and that is the growing knowledge overlap between the IT and business sides. As business units and IT groups grow their relationships, we find that the IT side gradually learns more and more about how the business works, and the business side has a growing understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the technology. What I have found through my conversations is that the most successful projects are those where the two sides have laid down their arms and forged a working relationship. These business people now know how the hardware and software works, and the technologists document and learn more about business process modeling and how those processes can be encapsulated within an operational system. This is a growing knowledge-management trend that reflects the need for a deeper understanding of how to exploit data and technology to gain a competitive edge.

One aspect of this trend is the abstraction of the business process in a way that enables a quick system implementation of that business process. New ideas such as business rule management, workflow analysis, classification and segmentation, and business process modeling are all parts of this trend. We are already seeing growth of companies building and using these kinds of applications. These applications effectively provide a way to formalize and document the rules associated with the way a business process works and provide a means for operationalizing those rules.

This kind of thinking leads to further conclusions. For instance, when technology is properly used for business intelligence, IT ceases to be a cost center and turns into a profit center! This happens when the value being derived from the correct application of technology is greater than the costs poured into the technology. Consider the growth of the return on investment (ROI) concept in the technology world. I have started to see descriptions of ROI and ROI spreadsheets popping up on technology-provider Web sites everywhere. This reflects the struggle to demonstrate that technology can have more than just a supporting role. Clearly, organizations that support cross training are going to be more successful in implementing and deriving value from data warehouse and BI applications.

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