Looking for better ways to support your growing business? Systems that will help your people to be more efficient and effective in their quest to delight your customers? Ways to provide better access to information to deliver insight and enable you to make better decisions? But which business application(s) should you implement? With so many products, technologies and vendor options available, how do you know which is the right one?
The truth is there is probably no single right answer; there are plenty of good and bad answers, but not necessarily right or wrong ones. Coupled with this, the pace at which new technology and services are being introduced to the market causes some to take no action at all – why act now when something better might come around the corner?
Even in such a rapidly changing ecosystem there are fundamental principles that apply and will continue to apply. To a certain extent, IT decision-makers will have to come to terms with the fact that they don’t know what they don’t know, and can’t put off decisions based on what may or may not be available further down the line. They need to be enabling their organisations to move forward and deliver against their strategic objectives.
Before you get coerced into making hasty investment decisions, buying the first product you see that looks like it fits the bill, you should create a strategic roadmap for your technology investments based on the following key principles. Not only will this ensure that your business technology platform is fit for purpose, it will introduce the flexibility you need to add and integrate new technologies and ways of working further down the line:
- IT systems must serve the business
As the recent stories of Lidl’s failed SAP implementation and Google’s inability to make a commercial success of Google Glass both illustrate, history is littered with examples of IT investments that failed because they were made for the wrong reasons. In an environment in which the pressure to jump on the latest technology bandwagon can be substantial, it is easy to end up with technology for technologies sake. The first step here is to really understand the value that the business delivers to its customers and how that value is created. What capabilities are required? How are those capabilities utilised? How are your employees creating that value? What information do they need to enhance the value they can deliver?
It is the links between the value, the capabilities and the organisation as a whole that provide a true picture of the business. It is only through understanding them that you can get visibility on how IT should support them.
- IT should be used only where it delivers benefits
It is very easy to focus on what IT delivers from a technology or function perspective rather than on the benefit it actually provides. In a world where many of the most high-profile businesses are essentially built on technology-enabled platforms (think Amazon, AirBnB, Uber, Ocado, etc) it is all too easy to see technology as the answer to every problem. Technology vendors perpetuate this myth, but too much technology can do real damage. It can add unnecessary complexity and often removes personal interaction. The most successful businesses are the perfect combination of people, process, information and technology – in that order.
With larger businesses, it often feels easier to view departments and offices as separate functions, but this can compound the problem. When investment in point solutions are not tied to the overall integration and flow of the business, they often fail to add real value. Look at the whole business system – the flow of information and product; the customer-employee-supplier interactions – and identify the options to deliver both functionality to a particular business area or process, and the overall integration and flow of the business.
Build the business case with the anticipated benefits front and centre. Clearly state the benefits in the following areas:
- Cost, waste and error avoidance
- Enhanced customer service
- Your ability to be more responsive
- Your ability to exploit an opportunity
If the IT solution(s) doesn’t help you achieve those benefits, then don’t do it. Or re-evaluate your approach to maintain focus on the benefits, outcomes and purpose that originally motivated your decisions.
- Identify key stakeholders to solve real user issues
Business systems require people to work. If your people are not involved from the start, you will face an uphill battle at both the stakeholder and user level. Most companies will look to involve a group of end users at the testing stage, but by that point it is likely that too many assumptions will already have been incorrectly made. There is also the problem that the implementation programme will likely be at such an advanced stage that even if the feedback is poor, it is incredibly difficult to make significant changes. The whole thing then runs the risk of being mothballed as no one will have the appetite to start over.
Getting end users’ input at the design stage will save a great deal of pain later on. Where appropriate, talk to customers, suppliers and partners, as well as employees about their needs, the problems that they would like to get solved, and implement this feedback into your decision-making process. This data is also invaluable for capturing stakeholder approval. By demonstrating end user support, engagement and system usability, you can build a stronger business case for your recommended next steps.
- Plan for change (the reality of future proofing when change is a constant)
It is not sufficient to simply define the business process and requirements for IT systems without considering the impact on, and changes required by, the organisation. New processes and IT systems will undoubtedly affect your organisation; not just because it’s a new set of tools or procedures to be learned, but potentially new responsibilities, new skills and new behaviours as well.
Until quite recently, implementation was frequently seen as just about design, build and roll out. Little consideration was given to how it was going to impact people on the ground. This had given rise to what we now call ‘change management’, but all too often it was simply a bolt on – a tick in the box rather than something that is given the serious time and investment that it needs. A lot of IT roll-outs fail because people can’t or won’t change the way they are working to enable that system to deliver the benefits that it promised. This is about more than just training. It is about ensuring there is real understanding about how the new systems will benefit each individual and help them in their daily work. If a system is disliked or seen as a barrier, people will simply find a way around it or blame it for their inability to work in the intended way.
Identifying and tackling these changes requires a proactive, planned programme, integral to the business and technical activities of any project. A structured programme that is flexible and can be tailored to changing organisational requirements. After all, your business is dynamic and needs technology that can keep up!
- Evolution and growth, creating an evolutionary path
Change is constant. There will be change you can plan for, and change you can’t, so it is critical that you build flexibility into your roadmap. We recommend creating an evolutionary path that has both your current and future needs at the heart. The goal is to be able to scale your systems and processes effectively as you grow. It is not necessarily about hiring more people, but creating an IT ecosystem that can continuously support improvements to capability, capacity and functionality. By doing so, you will increase the value you get from each of your employees – and the value you can deliver for your customers/clients.
You also need to be realistic. New systems will not work perfectly, at full capacity from day one. It will take time for them to bed in. There need to be mechanisms in place for capturing and responding to issues and suggestions from employees. If something isn’t working, or needs a little tweak, you’ll need the tools to make rapid changes so your output isn’t affected or ROI compromised. Don’t become a slave to the “as-designed”, “as-implemented”, “must make it work” mentality – if those using the systems day in, day out are raising issues, it’s for a good reason.
Investing in IT systems for any business can be a high risk, but also a high reward. Even when the right systems are selected, they are often compromised and the implementation fraught with difficulties which means they don’t deliver the value promised. By adopting the principles above, organisations – no matter what their size or stage in their life-cycle – can improve the likelihood that investments made will deliver the benefits and value required by your business.