Mobile is providing many enterprise IT and development functions with a clean slate, a chance to start-over and whilst not ignoring legacy we can adopt new technologies, new skills and new processes. I was recently involved in an online conversation about mobile strategy within the enterprise. This was an interesting discussion that demonstrated progressive thinking within the IT and development community when it comes to mobile.
It was particularly edifying to see the number of people who had user engagement as an important issue when building mobile apps. This is something that has typically been lacking within enterprise development and has resulted in applications that users have struggled to use. The mobile medium simply does not allow many of poor practices around UI and performance that desktop applications have gotten away with for many years.
The conversation also reminded me of another age old issue within the industry that the mobile revolution presents an opportunity to resolve. That is the fixation on technology as always being the answer to every question. Like the proverbial man with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail we in technology tend to answer every question with a technical reply. This is hardly surprising as that’s our field and most questions are going to be looking for a technical answer. But not always.
The communication problem – not just language but thinking
For many years as part of my job I wrote responses to customer tenders. These were often long proposals outlining solutions to requirements. For a lot of that time I prided myself on being able to outline technical issues such as frameworks and architectures in “plain English” that customers could understand. After a while it became clear to me that these customers did not actually care about frameworks and architectures even if they could understand what I was saying as opposed to if another “techie” explained it to them.
What customers care about is outcomes for them and their business. A multitier architecture that allows certain tiers to scale without major re-working is not as attractive to a customer as the idea that their shop site can adapt to increased customers at little extra cost. Put this way I found customers were far more engaged in the proposal and we won the work.
This change in approach was not just about language but thinking. Instead of thinking like a developer I had to think like the client. What is it that they are trying to achieve? What’s important to them and how does it help their business? Some of the best proposals did not even mention technology. Issues such as security and user experience are critical to delivering on a strategy but they are not a strategy.
A mobile strategy has to be about the business and how mobile enabling parts of the work force will make that business better: more productive, efficient, effective and competitive. Moreover a mobile strategy should seek to identify new ways of doing business that only mobile makes possible and not just how to do port existing processes to a phone.
Once the organisation has outlined these objectives then it is time to look at how technology can realise them and the issues (such as security and UX) that are involved. That understanding of delivery will help the business to calculate the ROI of the different strategic strands and then focus on which areas represent best value.
IT as a partner not a service
We could say that in this scenario the job of IT is simply to address those technical issues once the business has come up with the strategy. That has tended to be ITs approach in the past. Let the business figure out what solutions it wants and then provide the skills to deliver them. But surely we can do better. Surely as professionals who understand technology better than anyone else we are best placed to play an integral role in creating the strategy. How is a business going to identify new ways that technology can make that business better if the people who understand technology the best are not at the table having those discussions?
To achieve this we, as IT professionals, need to start thinking differently. We need to understand the business that we work in and speak its language. Not expect the business to speak our language or even translate our language into something easy to consume. Instead of architecture, security, UX and so on we need to talk about outcomes, ROI and value. It is our understanding of the former that allows us to help the business formulate strategies that deliver the latter.
The foundation of such thinking must be a desire to collaborate with our colleagues across the organisation. Unlike few other functions IT touches the entire enterprise. That window into every role should allow us to understand the business better than most. From that understanding we can help them to employ technology in a way that makes them work better.
An empowered IT
As part of the potential renewal of IT that mobile offers perhaps it is also time to adopt a new approach to our role within the organisation and what we are able to contribute. By doing so we become more empowered within the business. Instead of a service we can become an active contributor to the strategies that will make us (IT and the business) more successful. This concept is certainly not new but the introduction of mobile into the enterprise seems to have seeded a new mood that might finally embrace the idea.