Information Technology Dark Side

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COAST: The Business/IT Love-Hate Measurement

December 17th, 2007 · No Comments

I have great sympathy for the business organizations that utilize services from corporate IT groups. It’s not easy to make an IT project successful just because of the complex nature of software systems. Specialization and centralization of resources, which are practically IT “best practices” these days according to the popular literature, only makes things works. I’ve been wondering why that’s the case for about a decade now, and I think I’ve come up with some defensible ideas.

I think it helps to look at our IT organizations from the point of view of the business units we support, and I’ve devised a mnemonic to capture a heuristic for measuring how the people we support look at us: COAST. COAST stands for the Cost of Acquiring a Supportive Team. COAST is not about the effort required to complete a project, but the effort expended just to take the first steps necessary to start one. It is the cost of turning a business problem into an actionable project, with resources (people & technology) assigned and prepared to solve the problem.

If there are multiple layers of support organizations involved, COAST extends all the way through to the last layer of support and must include ALL the costs required to get to the point where even the network guy in the data center is committed to the project, if his support is needed.

Let me give you a specific, albeit fictional, scenario for your consideration. Goldilocks is a web project for Hollywood Avenue, a major cosmetology company – the idea being to create a web site that analyses digital photographs of a customer’s hair and recommends hair color products, highlighting patterns, etc. HA’s IT department has three layers of support – application development, infrastructure services, and technology acquisition. The engagement model works like this:

Business => Application Development => Infrastructure Services => Technology Acquisition.

I call this the Dem Bones engagement model. You know the lyrics:
The foot bones’ connected to the ankle bone
The ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone
The shin bone’s connected to the knee bone
etc, until you get to head.

Here’s the point, and I’m going to use caps because I wish I could shout it: COAST doesn’t stop growing UNTIL YOU MAKE IT ALL THE WAY FROM THE FOOT BONE TO THE HEAD BONE!

At HA, this means COAST doesn’t stop accumulating until all resources, from Application Development to Technology Acquisition, have been committed to the delivery of the Goldilocks product. COAST could be a little, or it could be a lot, depending on how much work is required to sign up each of these organizations.

Until all these resources are committed to your project, you haven’t incurred the total Cost of Acquiring Technology & Services.

Why COAST Matters
COAST is a measurement of how you are perceived by the business you support. If COAST is high, you are seen as a hindrance. If it is low, you are a partner. It’s that simple.

Measuring COAST
I’m sure there are numerical ways to measure COAST, but I’m not convinced it matters. My honest opinion is that what matters is not the actual numerical values about COAST, but the way your business partner FEELS about COAST. Specifically, COAST is relevant in three areas:

  • Economic Cost
  • Time Cost
  • Emotional Cost
  • Economic Cost
    How much money does your business partner have to spend just to get an IT project off the ground? Once the project has started, do they feel that money was well spent, or do they consider it wasted money that represents the “cost of doing business?” Did the work leading up to having an executable project make the project less expensive, or more expensive?

    Time Cost
    How long does it take just to get IT engaged and moving? What is the absolute shortest start cycle for taking any project from concept to the point at which everyone is on board and measurable progress is occurring? How does your business feel about that time? Is it time well spent, making the project more likely to succeed, or does every day the project hasn’t started yet add more risk to the project?

    Emotional Cost
    Does the process of getting an IT project moving leave your business feeling drained and resentful? Or, are they excited and more committed than ever? How many escalations were involved in getting IT to sign up for the project and assign resource? How many different IT executives have to agree before COAST stops growing? How many meetings, emails, and documents does it take to build consensus?

    The Four Rules of the COAST
    Rule #1: COAST is cumulative.

    The sum of the whole can NEVER be less than the sum of the parts. Take HA for example. The Application Development group can put together a dedicated project team in just a few days, but Infrastructure Services needs six weeks just to assign an analyst to evaluate your needs. When Technology Acquisition is involved, it gets even worse. COAST for TA is eight weeks or more. Even though the Application Development team can get off to a quick start, the total COAST is still high – fifteen weeks at a minimum.

    Rule #2: Business Facing IT Groups Must Shield the Business From the Downstream COAST Or Bear the Consequences for COASTs they Can’t Control

    It is possible for an IT project manager to absorb much of the COAST produced by the downstream systems. He or she should do their best to structure their projects in ways that take the downstream organizations with high COAST off the critical path and give them time to do their jobs without ecalations. This isn’t always possible though, and when it happens it has a real cost to the business. For example, Goldilocks requires a color analysis package from an outside vendor. This means that AD is going to have to engage IS, which will in turn engage TA (six weeks later), which won’t start working on the purchase of the package for another eight weeks. There may not be much the project can do in the meantime, in which case the project manager is transferring the COAST ($, time, emotion) up to her business partner. But maybe there are things that can be done, like prototyping the user interface, building a data model, or testing a mocked up system on a focus group. These things only shield the business from the COAST of IS and TA if they have tangible, substantial value to the business.

    Rule #3: Support Organizations Must Understand and Minimize Their COAST if They Want to Not Suck

    The further you are from direct interaction with the business the more responsive you must be as an organization to survive. Even though the opposite is typically true (thanks to Law #2), a support organization like Infrastructure Services or Technology Acquistion in our fictional Goldilocks project needs to build their model around the goal of being at least as responsive, if not more, as the organization they support. In the Goldilocks example, this means IS and TA must be able to commit to projects within a week or less, at minimal cost, and without an act of deity, if they want to be seen as a high value organization.

    Rule #4: Analyzing Isn’t Starting

    Gathering requirements isn’t starting. Neither is writing use cases, counting function points, or building work breakdown structures. COAST continues to accumulate while you perform these preparatory tasks. COAST continues to grow until you start to deliver something of value.

    COAST Defines How the Business Sees IT
    Read any business magazine and you’ll find at least one article mentioning the criticality of IT’s ability to respond quickly to the needs of the business. You can’t do that if your COAST is high. You have to lower it if you really want to be a partner in your business enterprise. You can’t lower COAST if you don’t know what it is from the point of view of your business partner. So ask them, and take their answer seriously. Most business think their IT departments suck. COAST is one of the reasons. Lower it.

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    Tags: Agile

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