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By providing unique offerings to the markets they serve, companies and organizations can become truly competitive, and even reach unprecedented levels of success.  For example, Apple has created a pioneering product – and sparked major consumer demand — with the iPad.   Competitive tablet makers are frantically playing catch-up.  And, will they ever catch up?  Do you recall what happened with Microsoft’s Zune?

Whether your offering is business- or consumer-based, a product or service, differentiation is the key to gaining competitive advantage.  And, a major driver for this differentiation is information technology.  Moreover, when IT is completely aligned with an organization’s business goals, then the opportunities are limitless:

– Internal and external business processes are improved

– Companies operate in a more effective and efficient manner

– Better access to the right information for making key decisions

– More market opportunities are identified

– Competitive differentiation increases.

While the concept of IT and business goals being aligned seems simple, it is often a rather elusive thing for many IT people to grasp.  Why?  Because most technology folks are focused more on the implementation, or the technology itself, as opposed to focusing on how it will impact the business.  I have seen this throughout my career, a great deal of which has been spent in large corporate IT departments supporting internal clients, but also while providing software and consulting to outside clients.  A common mistake is that many IT people tend to stab blindly in the dark to determine solutions first without really listening to the client’s requirements and business needs.

Unfortunately, my experience indicates that most business and IT people do not understand the difference between requirements and solutions, which causes a problem from the onset of a project, when needs and goals are initially being discussed.  I have been involved in projects where the business sponsors come in with detailed screen mock-ups and expect the IT team to develop the application based upon them.  This is an immediate red flag for me, because I believe the IT team needs to start at a high level of understanding the project’s business goals and progressively dig into the details so they can use their many years of experience developing applications to interact with the client to formulate better solutions, in terms of functionality, usability, and architectural flexibility, than what was originally conceived.

The opposite end of the spectrum occurs when business people indicate that they have no understanding of technology.  We sometimes hear a sponsor say “I’m not technical and I can’t talk about IT details.”  That’s alright from my perspective because it’s my responsibility as the lead consultant to bridge the gap between the business and technical side of a project.  We start with understanding the basic goals and requirements, then allow our development team to provide solutions in an iterative manner to ensure we are on the right track.  When this happens, it’s amazing how often we get a response of “Wow, that’s great and really close to what we envisioned.”

So, if you are a business sponsor of an IT development effort, regardless of whether you are using internal or external resources, you need to be confident that your IT team first understands the business goals of your project.  Next, they should be clarifying your requirements before they are jumping to suggesting specific solutions.  And finally, there needs to be some discipline in the project approach, so that a project plan and requirements document are written, kept current, and used as a true tool for the entire team so those business goals can be met.  It’s easy to talk about approach, but there’s really no substitution for good execution.  If you’re not getting these things from your IT team, it’s likely that your effort will fall short of your expectations.

I simply believe that any IT effort that does not align with business goals will waste a client’s valuable time and resources.   And, when companies and organizations make such a significant investment in IT, the results have to move the needle when it comes to business growth.  Otherwise, why are we doing it?

Posted by: Steve Short, President, NetLink Resource Group