Full Speed Ahead: IT Projects Get a Boost From Users

The typical IT workload consists of all manner of projects to be done -- some great and complex, affecting the entire enterprise, some small and narrowly focused on a few users. Since you can't do everything at once, priorities are set, possibly according to the maximum number of users affected or the department with the biggest budget.

But however priorities are decided, the very setting of priorities means that a great many IT projects that could yield positive results in terms of productivity and cost savings fall by the wayside, waiting for a break in the action that often never occurs.

It's not just your organization. A recent study by the Center for High Performance and its parent company Hudson Highland Group Inc., "Unlock Corporate Performance: America's Knowledge Workers Provide The Key" (download PDF), found that a "performance crisis" has hit corporate America, hindering its ability to shake off the effects of the sluggish economy and return to sustainable growth. IT departments, in particular, are bogged down with major initiatives, making it difficult, if not impossible, to affect change at the individual user level.

Fortunately, this finding comes at a time when the IT industry is nearing a breakthrough in capability. We are rapidly reaching a point in IT that Malcolm Gladwell refers to as a "tipping point" -- that moment in time when little changes begin to build up until a boiling point is reached. Gladwell, who was a technology and science writer for The New Yorker and The Washington Post, details this concept in his book The Tipping Point, which holds that small changes will have little or no effect on a system until a critical mass is reached. Then one final small change "tips" the system and a large effect is observed. It's that one dramatic moment when everything changes all at once, the unexpected becomes expected, and radical change moves from possibility to certainty.

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Advice
Jonathan Sapir
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Jonathan Sapir is President of InfoPower Systems Inc., developers of SnapXT, an event-driven, service-oriented rapid application development and deployment platform. He can be reached at jasapir@infpwr.com..

IT is rapidly reaching a new tipping point. The advent of Web services and service-oriented architectures (SOA) are key drivers toward the threshold of the next wave of computing after the Internet -- the IT-savvy organization.

This type of organization is one whose employees are willing and able to take responsibility for computerizing their part of the business, ideally within the context of an enterprise platform that facilitates reuse and sharing. In an IT-savvy organization, users no longer need to wait for IT to get around to creating smaller applications. Instead, they're learning to help themselves.

Let's face it: Users are already accustomed to performing a number of smaller tasks for themselves using tools and applications that don't require advanced certification or even a degree in computer sciences.

The next step, in an IT-savvy organization, is to take the initiative to develop the next level of applications, and then share them with others.

The catalysts for the IT-savvy organization are almost all in place:

  1. The need is there.
  2. The ability (and desire) is there.
  3. The technology, in the form of Web services and SOA, is now there.

All that's needed to tip the scale is something that brings it all together and fully enables the IT-savvy organization -- something that makes developing services as easy as designing a spreadsheet. Let's look at each of these factors in turn.

The Need

The need is clear, and many electrons have been devoted to detailing it. IT departments are facing enormous challenges. They are expected to develop, maintain and upgrade increasingly complex applications -- as well as integrate all the disparate applications they previously developed. They are also being bombarded by more requests for new applications from business users.

Adding to the pressure, a recent report in the Harvard Business Review stated that IT is no longer being seen as providing an advantage, but instead is merely a necessity in the same way electricity and the telephone are part of the normal course of doing business (see story).

Consider that in recent years, 75% of new application projects have come in over budget or later than projected, with many applications being scrapped before they're deployed. Part of that comes from major changes in technology during the development cycle, and part of it comes from users who either have an unclear idea of what they want at the onset or whose requirements change due to outside factors. After all, the nature of business itself is a great deal more volatile than at any time in history, requiring constant changes to systems to respond to market pressures and factors such as globalization.

Add the complexity of system interdependencies, requiring intense research before development can even start, and the crisis in application development becomes evident. A dramatically new approach is needed to turn this around.

The Desire and the Ability

Consider the rapid growth of IT-savvy people in the business world. First, let's remember that most business people have spent the past 20-plus years working with computer systems in some way. At first, it was just a couple of hours a day to run specific operations.

Since the introduction of e-mail and the advent of the Internet, most business workers spend the majority of their days on computers -- and often their nights as well. They're using computers to manage their finances, trade stocks, put up Web sites for their favorite hobbies, play online games that require them to set parameters and/or scenarios, and communicate with friends they've never met in person. As a result, computers are part of their daily lives. And after all these years of using computers in business, it has become natural for business people to include IT in their everyday thinking and be quite comfortable with it.

Next, consider the large influx into the workforce of youngsters who have never known a world without PCs, and who know more of the ins and outs of them than many of us pioneers who helped bring IT into the workplace. They know what can be done. And after mastering complex computer games, they wonder why the IT department would be needed to create a screen to enter some numbers and do a calculation. Many studied programming in high school and some even in junior high. Many know how to do it, and they want to do it. They just need the right tools to make it happen.

The Technology

Two of the problems in the past with letting the users help themselves were that the resulting applications typically were available only to the individual user that created them, and there was no overriding structure to help regulate them.

Here's a simple example of how those problems still play out today: An accountant who creates macros in a spreadsheet application to calculate discounts has developed a "service." Others in the organization may be able to use these spreadsheets, or variations of them, for various tasks. But if the spreadsheet is built in a silo for an individual user, the others will never know it's available, nor how they can make it available within their own services. If they want this same service, they either have to create it themselves or put in a request to IT. Either way, there is an inefficient duplication of effort, which is hardly the model of productivity most organizations desire.

If the accountant developed that service using an application other than the one that's standardized on desktops throughout the organization, it again resides in a silo that prevents its reuse. Since reusability of components is one of the driving mantras of today's IT world, creating services in isolation actually defeats the purpose of allowing users to create the services in the first place.

The ability to easily share that application with others is where Web services and SOA come into play. With SOA, applications are developed as a series of smaller "services" that solve immediate problems and can then be hooked together with other services to solve bigger problems. They also make it possible to address needs that affect small groups within the organization that normally would be passed over in favor of economies of scale.

From the typical point of view of a large IT department, developing an application that benefits five people out of 10,000 and saves the organization $10,000 a year is very low on the priority scale. But if individuals are able to develop those services on their own, and 100 people out of 10,000 do so at a savings of $10,000 a year each, then $1 million is saved without any increase in overhead and without sacrificing valuable IT resources. That's $1 million that drops straight to the bottom line. In the current economy, there aren't many organizations that would pass on that opportunity.

It ultimately comes down to viewing business as a series of small events that occur throughout the day, rather than as an amorphous blob that has to be addressed all at once. By imposing a set of standards, procedures and requirements (such as XML) for the construction of any services, IT can ensure "self-help" services play nicely with all the other services that are being developed. This is key to making this on-the-fly development process work. Once those standards are in use, organizations are in a position to become better, faster and more agile.

At that point, a cascade effect begins to happen, and groups of related services are bound together into ever-larger services. This is the power of SOA.

The Final Piece: RADD for the Masses

Reaching the tipping point requires a user-friendly rapid application development and deployment (RADD) tool that enables business users to create services without coding or worrying about the underlying technical infrastructure. I call such a platform a personal service builder, or PSB. Using PSBs, users apply their knowledge of the business to create solutions that become available to the entire organization.

Giving users this ability to increase productivity seems like a big leap for those comfortable in the world of today's enterprise applications. But recall how financial programs were built before spreadsheets, or how queries against databases were made before reporting tools. Business users had to farm out their requests to an IT specialist or programmer, then wait for days or even weeks for a solution.

Today, the thought of outsourcing a spreadsheet or query to IT is absurd. Clearly, given the right tools, users are quite adept at increasing their own productivity, which dramatically reduces the cycle time to build, change and extend systems.

The model is very much like that of the do-it-yourself projects tackled by homeowners. A certain percentage of the population wouldn't even think about hanging the blinds in their homes. They will always be dependent on contractors (IT personnel) for even the smallest needs.

Another group thinks nothing of building an addition, adding a fireplace or tearing out their old windows and replacing them with new ones, even though it's not what they do for a living. They're the ones IT has to keep an eye on, as they may take on more than they can handle.

In between, there are the people who will caulk the windows, install insulation in the attic and lay new floor tile. All they need are the right tools, and they'll take on those tasks and others for themselves. These are the people who will help relieve the burden on IT and help move the organization to a new, higher level of performance.

Conclusion

We are at a tipping point for the next computing revolution. An appropriate RADD tool that extends development capability to business experts will push it over the edge. Once these users build their own applications and extend existing ones, SOA will allow them to make these services available to the entire organization, making them part of larger, ever more powerful solutions. This will solve the communication gap between IT and business, and it will dramatically reduce the cycle time to build and change systems.

It will truly signify the beginning of a new era in IT and help to meet the growing needs of the high-performance corporation.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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