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8 reasons to consider a COE (Part 3)

February 16, 2010

[Note: For those of you looking for a deeper dive on IT-business alignment, I recently came across two interesting posts here and here. I also have two older posts on the subject here and here.]

This is the last of three posts looking at compelling reasons to consider a COE. In the first two, we examined how COEs can help reduce knowledge management risk, improve the quality of service delivery, and help organizations develop core competencies, retain employees, and create organizational linkages. In this post, we turn to some IT-centric reasons: to improve IT-business relations and rationalize IT delivery timelines.

#6. To improve the relationship between IT and the business

There are a number of reasons why IT may have a poor relationship with its business stakeholders, but a frequent culprit is a poor engagement model. In the simplest terms, the IT engagement model is simply the way(s) in which work gets brought to IT, evaluated for feasibility, and then executed (or not). The problem with most IT engagement models is that they’ve grown up organically over a long period of time, so they’re often less tailored to the current needs of the organization than they would be if the model were being built from the ground up today.

Although the subject of how IT engages with the business is a complex one, for our purposes here, the following aspects of the engagement model are of particular importance:

  • Intake – process that brings projects to IT’s doorstep
  • Triage – process that determines the priority of projects
  • Scoping – process that determines high-level cost, resources, timelines, etc.
  • Requirements gathering – process that determines detailed functional and non-functional requirements for the application being developed

All of us have likely been at an organization where one or more of these processes were functioning poorly. Business stakeholders calling developers directly to request work, the feeling that the department that screams the loudest gets their projects done, IT seemingly saying yes/no to whatever is requested of them, frequent misses on everything from basic functionality to the essential business value provided by an application—all of these are typical symptoms of problems with core elements of the IT engagement model.

COEs can help improve the IT engagement model and the problems related to it in a number of ways. Most importantly, COEs, which have cross-functional membership, shift some of the ownership of the IT engagement model onto the wider organization (which is where it belongs in the first place). After all, the goal of an IT engagement model is to optimize how technology is deployed to meet business objectives, which is an organizational problem, not an IT problem; IT is simply one of the variables in the equation. A COE provides a framework of policies, procedures, and processes that supports improved interactions between all stakeholders precisely because it’s coming from a cross-functional, enterprise perspective rather than just an IT one.

Second, standing up a COE gives an organization the chance to “get it right” in terms of the IT engagement model…at least for the process area, business activity, or capability in scope for the COE. Part and parcel of creating a COE is spending time designing exactly how the COE will interact with its customers and deliver products and services to them. From the first point of contact with a business customer to the release of an application to production, every step of the engagement model can be rethought and retooled to improve service delivery and customer satisfaction—a luxury we don’t get when we’re heads down just trying to keep up with our project pipeline.

#7. To rationalize delivery timelines for IT solutions

The challenge of rationalizing delivery timelines is closely related to the last reason for considering a COE, because unpredictability has an extremely negative impact on the relationship between IT and the business. Basically, rationalizing delivery timelines comes down to doing what you said you would do, and if IT doesn’t have a way to consistently do this, their relationship with the business will always be sour.

It’s important to remember that rationalizing delivery timelines is not the same as shortening them. These are two goals that should ideally be kept distinct, because the activities needed to accomplish each are too different in most circumstances to be successful doing both concurrently. In my experience, it’s best to aim for predictability first, then shorten timelines—but that’s material for a different post…

A COE can help IT rationalize delivery timelines in a number of ways. First, as we saw in reason #6, a COE contributes to improving the IT engagement model, which plays a big part in delivery timelines. Mistakes during scoping or requirements gathering have profound effects on the project schedule: by bringing together a wider group of stakeholders from across the enterprise within a redesigned engagement model, a COE reduces the likelihood and severity of mistakes during scoping and requirements gathering.

Second, because COEs are cross-functional bodies organized around a single process area, business activity, or capability, they are in a distinctive organizational position to gather and analyze data about service delivery. They can collect metrics from the supply and demand side of the equation, from stakeholders across the organization, and bring it all together under the auspices of an independent body that represents a larger perspective than simply IT or the business alone. This cross-functional perspective combined with its focus on a narrow set of products and services allows a COE to better predict how long it will take to deliver its products and services than would otherwise be possible.

#8. Because they work

As we’ve seen, a COE can be used to address a wide range of organizational challenges, from department-specific to enterprise-wide. But in the end, perhaps the most compelling reason to consider a COE is that it gets the job done: bringing together a cross-functional group of stakeholders from all levels of an organization, giving them the space to focus their talents and expertise on a single process area, business activity, or capability, and allowing them to do so for an extended period of time is a pretty simple formula for success no matter the organizational context. There are pitfalls, of course, like lack of executive support or time constraints on the members due to their other responsibilities, but when given the right level of executive support, when its members are allowed the time to work on its projects and initiatives, and when it’s been undertaken to address a valuable organizational goal, a COE can be a powerful force for organizational change.

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