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5 Tactics Leading IT Organizations Use to Realize the Promise of Business Capabilities

by Barton Kaplan

Almost every IT executive I speak to these days is actively working toward becoming a service provider, and for good reason. VMware survey data[1] indicate that the benefits can be powerful. IT as a service organizations are 37 percent more responsive to requests, invest 50 percent of their budgets in innovation and realize operational cost savings of 30 percent, among other benefits.

But a necessary prerequisite to achieve this status is good IT-business alignment. In order for business partners to feel confident having their service requests brokered through IT, they have to believe that IT understands their needs, that IT strategy reflects business priorities, and that IT will ultimately choose a service provider that best meets their specific requirements.

Unfortunately, this is where many IT organizations fall short. CEB data[2] shows that only 18 percent of business leaders believe IT prioritizes the investments that are most important to them. To align to the business, IT has typically focused either on business strategy or business processes. But business strategy is often too high-level and changes too frequently. Business processes, meanwhile, are too granular and function-specific to be meaningful at the enterprise level.

So how do IT organizations overcome this impasse? Many IT executives I’ve worked with have embraced business capabilities to bridge the divide between IT and the business. Simply put, business capabilities are activities an enterprise performs to achieve specific business outcomes. They are more stable than business strategy, but at a high enough altitude that they can be understood across the enterprise.

Despite their promise, business capabilities are no panacea. IT groups that have embarked on business capability initiatives struggle to realize a return on their investment. Their issues usually fall into one of the following areas:

  • Hard to define: Attempts to create business capability models can quickly become theoretical exercises and use language with which business partners are unfamiliar.
  • Hard to engage: Frequently when these efforts initiate out of IT, business partners become skeptical of the value and are unwilling to take ownership.
  • Hard to execute: Once a business capability model is in place, it should actually inform IT investment decisions. Most often, it does not.

To address these challenges and realize the true promise of business capabilities, leading IT organizations are adopting the following five best practices:

  1. Build business capabilities collaboratively. Successful capability models cannot be built in isolation. If business partners are expected to own the business capabilities, then they have to be involved in the effort to define those capabilities from the outset.
  2. Recognize that capabilities go beyond technology. Without a holistic understanding of what enables a business capability, it’s easy for an IT organization to default to a technology solution when the problem may lie elsewhere. One utility company I worked with that adopted a business capability-based approach went into the exercise thinking that 70 percent of its business issues were technology-related. It came out realizing that in fact only 30 percent were. The other 70 percent revolved around people and process issues.
  3. Prioritize capabilities. Putting together a capability model is a necessary but insufficient step. In order for business capabilities to become meaningful for planning purposes, they must be prioritized. A large government agency I worked with heatmapped its capability model by looking at the strategic importance of a capability and its maturity.
  4. Tie business capabilities to IT services. To ensure the services that IT creates will actually be consumed by end users, those services need to be defined in business terms. Instead of building services from the bottom up based on technology, they should be built top down based on the business capabilities they are designed to enable.
  5. Include business capabilities in IT roadmaps. To raise business confidence that IT investments will be directed to the most important business priorities, all IT programs should be mapped to business capabilities. At one financial services organization, this resulted in 2.5 times more IT spend on strategic initiatives.

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Barton Kaplan is a business solution strategist with VMware Accelerate Advisory Services and is based in Maryland.


[1] VMware “VMware IT Evolution: Today and Tomorrow – Insight from the VMware 2013 Journey to IT as a Service Study.” August 2013
[2] CEB 2013 Business Engagement Assessment Survey

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