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Business Technology Centers of Excellence - Investing in Your Future

Ensuring the business value of your technology

Now is the time to invest.  As organizations enter the planning stages for their key 2012 initiatives, it is time to invest in the ingenuity that enables companies to continuously strive for the ever-elusive competitive edge.  It is time to invest in innovative processes and insight that creates lasting business value for customers and shareholders.  It is time to invest in the advanced technology that provides the foundation and tools for the people and processes to meet their true potential.  This means investing in the organizational construct known as a business technology Center of Excellence (CoE).

The general concept of a business technology CoE has occasionally been incorporated into everything from a skunkworks-oriented IT research & development team to a full-fledged enterprise architecture organization.  Corporate enterprise IT R&D teams are typically assigned a mission to constantly assess trends in business technology and make recommendations regarding their usage.  These teams can serve a vital purpose in some companies, but are often challenged in making the connection between the new technologies and their immediate benefit to the business’ bottom line.  Similarly,  enterprise architecture teams have been very successful in documenting and establishing governance over the existing business, organizational, and technical constructs of a corporation, but have been challenged in delivering ongoing, proactive, and immediate strategic value to the business.  A well-defined CoE with a specific mission addresses both the tactical and strategic issues associated with implementing new business technology solutions while remaining focused on the value the technology provides to the business.

Begin by considering how the CoE will be staffed.  The core team should consist of experienced professionals who have an understanding of many technology domains as well as a solid grasp of the business.  As with any high profile transformational initiative, it should be staffed by high performers with a proven track record of success.  This initial team will morph into the internal consultants in the organization who will be charged with driving change, so they need to have credibility and influence with both the business and IT departments.  From a practical standpoint, the enterprise architecture team is likely to have the most qualified candidates.  Suggestions for staffing additional roles and responsibilities beyond the CoE leadership will be discussed later.

The graphic below demonstrates both an organizational construct as well as the functional considerations that need to be addressed when introducing new business technology into the enterprise.  As with any enterprise initiative, it all begins with an examination of the business priorities.  This enables the team to understand where the greatest opportunities lie for technology to play a transformative role.  This understanding will then drive the situations, scenarios, and business problems to which the new technology can be applied.  For example, a business initiative focused on expansion into emerging markets with minimal technical expertise can drive the need for rapid provisioning of IT solutions and/or private cloud solutions.  Depending on the technology in question, these two CoE elements can actually drive each other.  For example, an understanding of business analytics technology and the role it can play in transforming organizational decision making can become the foundation that drives ideas for new business initiatives.  It may be considered blasphemous in some organizations, but there is nothing wrong with an emerging technology solution looking for a critical business problem to solve.  The business initiative and technology domain  decisions will in effect become the organizational charter for the CoE and therefore define its mission.

Once the mission is established, there are four areas of consideration that the CoE must address in order for a solution to become enterprise class.  From a timing perspective, some areas must be addressed prior to others, but all must be taken into consideration from the beginning.  Although there is minimal overlap in terms of purpose of any of these, they are complementary and are all required in order to deliver an enterprise class business solution.  The first area is Architecture.  As the saying goes, Architecture establishes the proverbial “rules of the road” that guide decision making and link the actual technical solution back to the business priorities.  Architecture includes the organizational thought leadership and evangelism that will drive adoption of the technology across the enterprise.  Techniques will include proofs of concept and prototypes that address specific business problems, the selection of the technology best suited for the organization, and a detailed understanding of the business value derived from the investment in the technology.  This function should be executed by the CoE leadership described earlier.  A combination of business leaders and architects set the overall direction of the CoE and lead execution.

The second area of consideration is Solution Development.  Even if the bulk of the solution is acquired from vendors rather than built in house, attention has to be paid to ensure that the implementation of the business functionality is done in a consistent and repeatable fashion.  These areas would typically be addressed by the development leads responsible for understanding the deep technical details of the technology, the optimal methods and nuances involved in deploying and reusing its components, and ensuring that the solution is well tested and exercised before it is used by the organization.  If, for example, the CoE is focused on the business process management (BPM) technology domain, these individuals would understand how to use the BPM tooling to map business processes, pass the appropriate business information between systems and humans, and all of the application integration details (service definitions, etc.).

The third area of consideration focuses on the Infrastructure components.  This includes   everything that ensures the establishment of an enterprise class environment upon which the solution can be hosted.  It includes defining and deploying installation and configuration procedures for the hardware and software to provide a highly available, scalable, recoverable, and secure environment.  These responsibilities would be executed by individuals such as systems administrators or engineers who understand capacity planning and all aspects of infrastructure management.  They would ensure that the solution adheres to established enterprise IT standards and reuses existing corporate hardware (servers, network, storage, etc.) and middleware (databases, application servers, etc.) to the greatest extent possible.

The fourth and final area of consideration focuses on post implementation Solution Support.  As critical as the solution is to the achievement of business priorities, systems and personnel need to be in place to ensure that it is functioning optimally.  This includes the ability to monitor the solution from a performance, availability, and functionality perspective as well as ensuring the proactive escalation and resolution of any issues.  Depending on the organization, this function may be performed by the same professionals responsible for the Infrastructure area of concern mentioned previously.  Similarly, any monitoring, service request management, and escalation systems already in place for the existing enterprise IT environment would be utilized for the new technology as well.

Although the graphic does not represent it, there is a cycle involved in each of these areas of consideration.  As the team and the solution evolves, new experiences are introduced that can iteratively drive more business value and efficiency.  However, once the CoE has achieved its initial mission and the solution has been rolled out, the teams focused on Architecture and Solution Development would remain in place and continue to act as internal consultants and evangelists to spread the technology and its business benefits across the enterprise.  The professionals focused on Infrastructure and Solution Support will have successfully integrated the new technology into the enterprise and would take on less of a role in driving further adoption.

As has been proven time and time again, technology itself cannot transform a business nor take it to the next level of success.  As Jim Collins articulates in his perennial best seller, “Good To Great”, however, technology can become the "accelerator" that enables the transformation.  Establishing a Center of Excellence that enables dedicated professionals to focus on applying a specific technology domain to a business problem will better enable the organization to reap greater benefits from its investment in the technology.

More Stories By Douglas Allen

Douglas W. Allen is a husband and father from Des Moines, IA and the owner of the winningtechnicalsales.com blog, dedicated to the sales engineering profession. As a technical sales manager at IBM, his team is dedicated to helping customers design and deploy enterprise-class business technology solutions that enable those customers to make money, save money, or mitigate risk. He is currently on a campaign to convince the world that the past, present, and future of rock and roll recently came out of New Jersey in the form of The Gaslight Anthem. He can be reached at www.linkedin.com/in/douglaswallen.