Do you feel the weight of technical debt on your business supporting system? Is it architecturally aligned with the needs of the business?

In today's business world, getting new or enhanced business capabilities to market is key – everyone talks about "first mover advantage". Many first movers steal the market share and those that come second only have the option of playing on their rivals' weaknesses in the hopes of leaping ahead; they are often stuck on the back foot trying to make a breakthrough to get ahead.

As such the business puts tremendous pressure on its supporting technology teams to take the short-term view, and in their drive for progress, push for the low-cost, quick, often tactical solution saying:

“Yeah, we know you don't like doing these duct tape and baling wire solutions…
We'll come back and give you budget to tidy it up later.”

This, as we know, never happens, and another down payment is made on technical debt – by repeatedly deferring investment in the system architecture and by continually making tactical enhancements, the cost of future change becomes progressively more costly.

The short-term view perpetuates, and before long the business is presented with a budget proposal for a system rewrite under the guise of better future alignment and a clean slate. Arms fly up in the air with much consternation. The business claims that their supporting technology team is not able to align with their objectives and such an endeavor will slow the business evolution. The systems replacement project begins only to be confronted with the same old issues.

Tradeoffs

The figure below illustrates both the businesses' and technologies' perceived focus and the trade-off between the tactical solution and one that aligns better with the current vision of the ideal target architecture at that time.

Comparing Strategic vs. Tactical Decisions

The architectural vision is from the perspective of the supporting technology team's long-term view of business need. Its cost balanced goal is to keep solutions trending towards the next step in the architectural road map. We step back and sigh, and say to ourselves:

“Forward progress is good right? One day we will align better…”

However as previously highlighted, unless the business readily supports the proposed technology solution as it aligns directly to the architectural roadmap, and recognizes that it is the best solution that meets their needs (in terms of cost and time), there will always be business pressure to cut corners for a more tactical approach. The dilemma is in how to break this cycle.

Moving Forward

Today and in the future, technology teams that support the business must embrace this reality. Technology must show at every step how any solution is directly connected to business need. To this end, it is essential that technology be fully engaged in the development of the business vision and strategic direction. This can be achieved by:

  • Understanding the what, how and why of the business.
  • Proposing solutions that build on and are connected to that understanding.
  • Contributing the benefits and costs of implementing various technical capabilities to meet the business need or challenge what may be unwarranted technological need.
  • Establishing methodologies and system architectures to allow for the continual development of solutions that can adapt readily to the ever-changing business direction.

Perhaps this cycle has to happen one or more times to replace that legacy system that is no longer maintainable as it's weighed down by too much technical debt to be economical (cost vs. quality) in supporting business change and is unable to absorb future change readily. Just better make sure you get it right this time.

With this alignment technology can architect business systems with implementation and change management processes that make the tactical vs. strategic solution discussion obsolete, or at least reduce the swing of the pendulum, so that they strive to become the same thing.

In this way, technology is serving the business needs and the resultant alignment will empower the business to lead its market to everyone's benefit.

Based off an article on Simon's blog: The business solution dilemma and the long-term view

Written By: Simon Shortman, November 2011
Simon is a Principal with the Office of the CIO Professional Services

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Strategically Speaking