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So What’s IT For?

In the last article I suggested that a big part of the IT Manager’s job is to ensure people are able to work with their IT. Now I want to cover how that IT should help them in their jobs. 


There are, in my mind, three big benefits from corporate IT: Information Exploitation, Communication & Collaboration, and Stakeholder Enablement. If bits of IT deliver these benefits then the IT is creating value, if not then we might as well scrap it. So what do I mean by these three concepts?

INFORMATION EXPLOITATION: The ability to provide information which is actually used. There is a lot of confusion in the use of the terms Data and Information. Data is essentially source material, the raw components from which we manufacture Information. Information is something we can use to influence our actions, if we so choose. A lot of information is produced which doesn’t change our actions - either because we ignore it or we’re too busy to cope with it - this information is useless, producing it was a waste of effort. The information that we want and need in business is that which will influence our actions, and a major purpose of IT must be to create such information, information which is actually exploited.

What that information might be will depend on the context of the recipient, to a Credit Control Manager it may be a list of overdue debtors, for a Trader it might be a recent price history of a stock or commodity, for a Marketing Manager it may be a demographic breakdown of a market. The purpose of IT must be to identify what that exploitable information is for each type of worker in the enterprise, and to manufacture it in a timely manner so that the recipient makes better decisions and takes more effective actions as a consequence of being better informed.

Information is used at all levels in business, from the warehouseman who is expected to ensure that he does not run out of stock, through management who need functional performance information to measure and guide their management decisions, to the board of directors who need information in order to formulate and decide upon strategy and direction for the business. Having the information we need, when we need it, is very empowering and sadly all too rare; it is the core purpose of “Information Technology” but is too often neglected in favour of using technology to solve easier problems. A simple example might be ensuring that a procurement clerk has a clear picture of suppliers’ lead time histories to help him ensure that supplies are ordered neither too late, delaying production and causing customer dissatisfaction, nor too early so that working capital is not tied up in excess inventory. More sophisticated but entirely practicable would be to have tools in place which allow the marketing manager to see the ROI of marketing campaigns in real-time, allowing him to focus on prioritising those which work and culling those which don’t before more money is wasted.

COMMUNICATION & COLLABORATION: It is the nature of a company that we work together as a group of people performing complementary functions for a common purpose. In the past that communication was based on functional silos and the silo walls formed communication boundaries with inter-silo communication largely limited to silo managers peering over the top of their silos to communicate with the management of other silos. For ease of management silos were generally created based on management reporting line and geographic location. 

Modern businesses don’t work that way anymore. We have become decentralised, locating customer-facing parts of our organisations near to our customers, establishing research and development in cities with technology clusters, manufacturing in the far East etc. We expect our people to be able to work together without being co-located, to provide 24-hour “follow the sun” support by operating across multiple continents, and in order to achieve this we use technology to aid the communication and collaboration between our geographically distributed teams. Similarly, even within a single-site organisation, we expect our people to collaborate on a peer to peer basis across business functions - if we haven’t completely dismantled our silos we have at least punched large holes in the walls that divided them.

The ability to communicate and collaborate with other employees, in different business functions, whether they are located in the next office or half-way across the world, in real time, is a characteristic of all successful distributed organisations. Whether the communication is by email, telephone, video-conferencing, distributed processes in CRM & ERP systems, shared folders, wikis or other collaboration tools, and whether they are point-to-point or cloud-based collaboration systems, and whether they are office to office or peer to peer depends on the nature and culture of the organisation, but good communication and collaboration tools will help to eliminate both geographical and functional barriers. However it’s done the provision of communication & collaboration tools which enable our people to work together for best effect is a key deliverable of IT and one of the ways in which it can most contribute to organisational effectiveness. A simple example would be the use of personal video-conferencing and concurrent multi-party document editing to enable people on different sites to collaborate real-time in updating a document such as a contract or specification in hours instead of relying on a lengthy serial review and revision process executed over several days.

STAKEHOLDER ENABLEMENT: I used to call this “Worker Enablement” but Web 2.0 has progressively expanded the reach of the IT function to embrace customers, partners and suppliers. Each player in the business value chain needs to interact with the business processes of the next so we need to look beyond our own workers to include the part played by others in the process. Whether it is our own workers, or our customers or suppliers, each performs a role in one or more processes and in order to enable those processes to work efficiently we must enable the people involved to fulfil their roles.

Most organisations operate a large number of business processes, some very frequently such as transactional processes like sales, and some infrequently such as quarterly or annual stock-taking. These processes are executed by people with varying efficiency and consistency. As managers we tend to focus on improving the most frequent processes to enable people to perform them more efficiently and reliably, but it is often the case that the less frequently executed processes are both much larger, and less well executed.

Stakeholder Enablement is simply ensuring that our IT provides the tools needed for people to execute their part in the process, better. That may be helping a telesales representative to focus on dialing out to the best prospects, or an accounts clerk to reconcile the bank receipts to the ledgers, or a customer to order our goods more easily, or a supplier to provide what we want when we want it at lowest overhead - Stakeholder Enablement is about ensuring that the players in our business processes can perform their part as efficiently and reliably as possible. The most visible example is undoubtedly the online shop or e-commerce solution - vendors who make buying easier for the customer get more sales, but internal processes are just as important - such as self-service HR which enables staff to book their holidays for periods which don’t conflict with the plans of those colleagues who will cover for them whilst they’re away.

GOOD TO GREAT: In my last article I wrote about the importance of ensuring that people are equipped to work comfortably with technology and remain productive through the day, and some of the considerations that a good IT manager will take into account in order to achieve this. The great IT manager will lead his organisation a giant step further by taking personal responsibility for ensuring that individuals benefit from the purposes of corporate IT; having the right Information and being able to exploit it, being able to work effectively as a coherent team by having the communication and collaboration tools which suit both the business and the people; and having the best tools to do the job of executing the organisation’s business processes as efficiently and consistently as possible. 

Obviously having an IT manager who takes personal responsibility for the performance of the organisation is not an option for those businesses which outsource their entire IT provision or treat their IT department as a supplier instead of an integral part of the business, but fortunately the numbers of these are falling as more businesses realise that to benefit from IT they must have strong in-house control of what IT means to them.


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